Orchids: the ephemeral beauty of Torres del Paine

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For those who have had the privilege of visiting Torres del Paine National Park, there is no doubt that the scenic beauty that it has is extraordinary. The mountain for which the park is named, Chile’s quintessential postcard in the world, rises sharply to just over 3000 meters of elevation, generating diverse landscapes representative of southern Chile that include extensive lakes, rivers, mountains, valleys and glaciers. These landscapes also support a variety of ecosystems such as the wide and flat Patagonian steppe, old forests, shrublands rich with native species, and cold swamps at high elevation, among others. These ecosystems are dominated by endemic and emblematic species such as the Coirón, Calafate, Lenga, Neneo and Notro.
Torres del Paine received the UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve award in 1978 because of this representative heterogeneity.
Although for any observer the beauty of the scenery in Torres del Paine is clear, there are other beauties, less obvious, tiny, uncharted, but as sublime as mountains or valleys. These beauties are hidden during the winter months in the cold forest floor and emerge quickly to the surface to greet the spring. They are orchids, a small group of plants, which beyond the elegant beauty they offer us, keep the secrets of laborious existence in the southern extremes.
Orchids represent a family of very diverse vascular plants. It is estimated that this group includes 25 thousand different species in the world, mainly concentrated in tropical areas. They are herbaceous, mostly perennial, and live on the ground (terrestrial) or use other plants as substrate to settle (epiphytes). They are attractive for horticultural purposes and can be distinguished from other plants by the peculiarity of their flowers, especially the transformations of the lip, or "central petal" which present complex colors and shapes, and sometimes imitate polunating insects. Orchids develop complicated interactions with their pollinators (bees, wasps), and their roots form symbiotic relationships with fungi in the soil.
(Photos Claudio F. Vidal)
The species in Chile form a small group within the large family of orchids. It is estimated that there are about 49 species, almost all of which are endemic to the country and contain an enormous scientific and educational potential.
Among Chilean orchids, it is estimated that at least 10 different species inhabit Torres del Paine, including the first albino variety of flowers discovered in Chile (Chloraea magellanica). These species are found mainly in shrublands and forests, in soils containing abundant organic matter. Unfortunately, orchids in Torres del Paine have been studied very little. The research on their distributional patterns and preferred habitats is scarce, and so far, their reproductive biology, their pollinating insects, and their symbiotic relationships are unknown. According to surveys conducted by the AMA Torres del Paine volunteers, many of the walking trails have orchids. The opportunity to see these orchids has the potential to attract tourists interested in nature, botany, and photo safaris. Tourism like this could help increase the interest and appreciation for the orchids in Torres del Paine and could result in initiatives that promote conservation and scientific research. This issue is necessary, especially after the catastrophic fires that have affected large areas in the National Park and have degraded habitats and conditions the orchids need to thrive.
Additionally, the conservation of orchids in Torres del Paine can be motivated by easy actions that help unravel secrets about their biology and ecology which have been neglected for years. These actions include: a) implement a systematic sampling to determine the degree of rarity of the species in Torres del Paine; b) develop a database of morphology (size, number of flowers) and phenology (flowering time); c) characterize the habitats and site conditions for each species to learn their ecological requirements and; d) identify potential threats to their populations (domestic livestock grazing, trampling by tourists).

Research on Paine orchids is just beginning. Until now, the only attributes defined are taxonomic and distributional, but the knowledge is expected to increase through future research that progressively unravels the secrets of the orchids, beyond their ephemeral beauty.
More information:
Novoa P., Espejo J., Cisternas M., Rubio M. & E. Domínguez (2006). Guía de Campo de las Orquídeas Chilenas. Corporación de la Madera, Concepción, Chile.
Vidal O. J. (2007). Flora Torres del Paine (second edition). Fantástico Sur, Punta Arenas, Chile.
Vidal O. J., San Martín C., Bauk V., Mardones S. & C. F. Vidal (2012). The Orchids of Torres del Paine Biosphere Reserve: The Need for Species Monitoring and Ecotourism Planning for Biodiversity Conservation. Gayana Botánica 69: 136-146.