Paleontological Expedition into the Heart of Chilean Patagonia

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Paleontological Expedition into the Heart of Chilean Patagonia

Photographer: Felipe Trueba


A valley in the Southern tip of Chile, dubbed as the Rosetta Stone of Paleontology in the Southern hemisphere. New findings of well-preserved fossils of vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants from the Cretaceous period could be the key to unlocking significant tracts of the common past of South America and Antarctica.

Most of the territory in the Magellan region, at the southern-most tip of Chile, is in the hands of private landowners. Estancia Cerro Guido, with 100 000 ha. bordering the Torres del Paine National Park is one of the largest estates in the country. And while dedicated to cattle farming, its mountains are also home to the most important dinosaur fossil reserve in Chile. Every year the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) and the Universidad de Chile organize a paleontological expedition to shed some light on the end of the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs became extinct. In its 10th anniversary the expedition, a group of 20 researchers of various disciplines, embarked on a two-week journey into the heart of Chilean Patagonia.

A group of Chilean, Brazilian and Argentinian researchers working on vertebrate fossils believe that the treasure trove of fossils in the Valley of Las Chinas could be the key to understanding life in the Southern region of the world at the end of the dinosaur era. This team, along with another group of paleontologists, continues to discovering species such as Hadrosauride (Duck-billed), Ankylosauria (armored dinosaurs) or even parts of large predators that complement earlier findings and allow the team to build out more and more information. This includes extremely well-preserved and complete vertebrate specimens that could help redefine history by filling in the gaps of unknown time that scientists still have from that period.

66 million years ago an asteroid hit the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico with catastrophic consequences on Earth: a worldwide climate disruption that triggered a mass extinction in which three-quarters of plant and animal species died out. The Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (known as K-Pg) marks the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Paleogene Period. The K-Pg is, in fact, a geological feature, often a thin band of rock that locates the exact timing of the dinosaurs´ extinction. This layer, and previous ones denoting the Mesozoic Era, are the point of the study of another lot of experts – Paleobotanists. This team keeps finding fossilized leaf imprints, ferns and even seeds dating back 70 million years that disclose a former subtropical region with lush vegetation and higher sea-levels. A genus of Southern beech trees, the Nothofagus, native to the southern hemisphere, ranging from Australia to South America is also present here.

The director of the INACH and initiator of this long term paleontological expedition, Marcelo Leppe, talks about this area as the new Rosetta Stone of Paleontology. The information shared by geologists, paleobotanists and biologists, a multidisciplinary and international team, working on this specific valley is disclosing the unknown bonds shared by three regions - South America, Oceania, and Antarctica, all linked by a common and concealed past.