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As the airplane began its initial descent into the Bariloche airport, I stared out the window; snow-capped mountain peaks loomed, what appeared to be flat, barren landscape stretched out into the horizon, and several rivers wound through the landscape. Having come from Buenos Aires, a busy, cosmopolitan city filled with stretching skyscrapers, bustling businessmen, and crazy cabdrivers, I was a little bit shocked by the contrast. Gone were the towers, the masses of people, and the stifling heat and humidity of the Argentine summer. Instead, as I stepped out of the Bariloche airport and headed into the town, I was met with a chilly breeze, the refreshing scent of fresh air, and more flat landscape, dotted with small bushes and shrubs as far as the eye could see. 

View from my window before landing at Bariloche

View from my window before landing at Bariloche

***

Perhaps no area on this planet has captured our imaginations as Patagonia. Described by Wikipedia as “boasting some of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth”, the region has a certain mystique that evokes adventure, beauty, and nature. Its aura is so great that an outdoor clothing and gear company has even adopted the name and imagery for its own brand. The region spans across both Chile and Argentina in southern South America, and stretches from Tierra del Fuego – the “Land of Fire”, a place enticingly close to Antarctica – to the pampas further north.

Bariloche is nestled along the border of Argentina and Chile, towards the northern part of Patagonia. The town – population 100,000 – is flanked on one side by the Andes, and peaks of the nearby mountains are omnipresent, from the spirals of Cerro Cathedral to the tip of Monte Tronador (“Thundering Mountain”). On another side, Bariloche is adjacent to Lago Nahuel Huapi, a crescent-shaped lake that stretches over 45 miles in length.  

The shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, with the peaks of the Andes visible in the background.

The shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, with the peaks of the Andes visible in the background

The town has been booming in recent years due to an influx of tourists and its rise in popularity as a ski town; hotels crowd around the shoreline of the lake, a symptom of the uncontrolled growth of the past decade. Yet, despite this expansion – and the introduction of the city’s first McDonald’s last year – I still felt a sense of quiet charm as I walked down the main commercial avenue, Mitre Ave. The civic center, the town’s main square, consists of distinct stone and wood buildings, a style echoed by the city’s cathedral, a few blocks away. Street peddlers hawked their fares outside the civic center, and buskers attempted to persuade me to take a photo with their St. Bernard dogs, which have come to symbolize this town. Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is the abundance of chocolate stores. First sparked by the town’s German-influenced founding, Bariloche’s chocolate making is now world-renowned, and it appeared that every other store along Mitre was a chocolate shop. With artisan chocolates, truffles, jams, ice cream, and other chocolate products, the shops are heaven for any chocoholic.  

A soccer rally for Boca Juniors in Bariloches Centre Civico.

A soccer rally for Boca Juniors in Bariloche’s Centre Civico

***

The flat landscape that I observed upon landing turned out to dominate much of the landscape around Bariloche. However, I soon realized that there was an amazing diversity of biota and different habitats in the region. Bariloche is enclosed by Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, Argentina’s first national park. The town is technically inside the national park, which is contiguous with Lanin National Park to the north, as well as Puyehue National Park and Vicente Perez Rosales National Park to the west, in Chile. Together, the four national parks protect nearly 6000 square miles of land and water. Besides the Patagonian steppe – the flat, shrubby landscape that I had seen – there are rolling hills, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, mountains, and islands. In addition, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to visit some of the glaciers dotting the region, as well as parts of the Valdivian rainforest, a unique ecoregion that stands in sharp contrast to the dry steppes that dominate other parts of the region.

A view of some of the lakes of the region.

A view of some of the lakes of the region

The author posing in front of some of the black glaciers close to Monte Tronador.

The author posing in front of some of the “black glaciers” close to Monte Tronador

A boardwalk cutting through parts of a Valdividian rainforest

A boardwalk cutting through parts of a Valdividian rainforest

This amazing diversity of habitats and terrain is likewise accompanied by a diverse fauna; among other animals calling this region their home are the pudu pudu, the world’s smallest dear, the monito del monte, an arboreal marsupial, otters, puma, and also the tuco-tuco, relatives of the guinea pig.

***

It was because of the tuco-tuco, my study organism, that I was here in Patagonia. Analogous to the gopher, the tuco – which lives underground in burrows – is only found in South America, and in particular, one species which we are interested in, the colonial tuco-tuco, is found only within a part of Nahuel Huapi National Park. While my research focuses primarily on the colonial tuco’s genetics and genomics, with the ultimate goal of helping conserve this endangered species, there is nothing quite like traveling down to their habitat and observing them in the wild for developing a much greater appreciation of, understanding of, and connection to that organism. Together with Dr. Eileen Lacey, our collaborator at Berkeley, and Mauro, a local Argentine grad student, we drove nearly an hour outside of town to the Patagonian steppe each day to observe, and also catch and release, the tucos.

The Patagonian steppe, where our field work took place

The Patagonian steppe, where our field work took place

A shot of the edge of the Limay Valley, site of most of our field work

A shot of the edge of the Limay Valley, site of most of our field work

The core of the intrepid field team

The core of the intrepid field team

The landscape at our study site was also flat, interrupted only by shrubs and the occasional tree. But underneath this terrain were complicated systems of tuco burrows, evidenced by the small holes dotting the land that served as the openings to the burrows. Careful, quiet observation would also reveal the occasional tuco head popping up out of a burrow and giving a sharp squeal before dropping back into the burrow. Observing – and attempting to photograph – the tucos soon became a giant game of whack-a-mole; the tucos would usually never use the same burrow entrance twice in a row, and upon noticing human intruders, would seemingly become wary and duck back in, their next appearance unknown and unpredictable. Yet patience soon paid off, and I managed to watch both tuco adults and pups emerge from their underground nests, and also saw a tuco pull some shrub leaves back into the burrow for food, as well as another tuco shifting a mound of dirt.

An adult tuco peers out of its burrow

An adult tuco peers out of its burrow.

An inquisitive pup pops out for a moment

An inquisitive pup pops out for a moment.

Patience was also needed for the field work. We were constantly hindered by poor weather, with rain drizzling or high winds buffeting us nearly nonstop, conditions that would cause the tucos to remain underground. The wind, too, kicked copious amounts of dust and volcanic ash, remnants from a nearby volcano eruption last year, into the air. When we were fortunate enough to have good weather, even more patience was required, as successfully trapping a tuco required monitoring a single burrow over an extended period of time, hoping that the tuco would choose to use that opening to emerge from the ground.

Despite these conditions, we still managed to catch eleven tucos, approximately half adults and half pups. Once caught, the adult tucos were scanned for an embedded ID chip; we then recorded demographic data, assessed their general condition, and took non-intrusive fur and toe clip samples, to be used for later DNA extraction and analysis. The whole process took less than a couple minutes for each tuco, and then they were released to their original burrows, unharmed.

A particularly curious tuco checks out the camera

A particularly curious tuco checks out the camera.

The author holds a tuco.

The author holds a tuco.

***

It is somewhat ironic that such a small creature could incite me to travel all the way down to Argentina, but after my time in the area, I can now understand the magical pull of Patagonia. Although I was confined to only a singular part of the region, I can now fully appreciate it as a region of immense beauty, incredible biodiversity, and diverse ecoregions, and hope that I will have the opportunity in the future to once again have adventures in Patagonia.

- Jeremy