its division into at least three general zones—the desert provinces of the north, central Chile, and the humid regions of the south. The first is an arid desert absolutely barren along part of the coast, between Tacna and Copiapó, but with a coarse scanty vegetation near the Cordilleras along watercourses and on the slopes where moisture from the melting snows above percolates through the sand. In the valleys of the Copiapó and Huasco rivers a meagre vegetation is to be found near their channels, apart from what is produced by irrigation, but the surface of the plateau and the dry river channels below the sierras are completely barren. Continuing southward into the province of Coquimbo a gradual change in the arid conditions may be observed. The higher summits of the Cordilleras afford a larger and more continuous supply of water, and so dependent are the people in the cultivated river valleys on this source of water supply that they watch for snowstorms in the Cordilleras as an indication of what the coming season is to be. The arborescent growth near the mountains is larger and more vigorous, in which are to be found the “algarrobo” (Prosopis siliquastrum) and “chañar” (Gourliea chilensis), but the only shrub to be found on the coast is a species of Skytanthus. Near the sierras where irrigation is possible, fruit-growing is so successful, especially the grape and fig, that the product is considered the best in Chile. In regard to the indigenous flora of this region John Ball says: “The species which grow here are the more or less modified representatives of plants which at some former period existed under very different conditions of life.” Proceeding southward cacti become common, first a dwarfed species, and then a larger columnar form (Cereus quisco). The streams are fringed with willows; fruit trees and alfalfa fields fill the irrigated valleys, and the lower mountain slopes are better covered with a thorny arborescent growth. The divides between the streams, however, continue barren as far south as the transverse ranges of mountains across the province of Aconcagua.
To some degree the flora of central Chile is of a transition character between the northern and southern zones. It is much more than this, however, for it has a large number of genera and species peculiarly its own. A large majority of the 198 genera peculiar to the South American temperate regions belong exclusively to central Chile. This zone extends from about the 30th to the 36th parallel, perhaps a little farther south to include some characteristic types. The evergreens largely predominate here as well as in the extreme south, and on the open, sunburnt plains the vegetation takes on a subtropical aspect. One of the most characteristic trees of this zone is the peumo (Cryptocarya peumus), whose dense evergreen foliage is everywhere conspicuous. The quillay (Quillaja saponaria) is another characteristic evergreen tree of this region, whose bark possesses saponaceous properties. In earlier times the coquito palm (Jubaea spectabilis) was to be found throughout this part of Chile, but it has been almost completely destroyed for its saccharine sap, from which a treacle was made. One of the most striking forest trees is the pehuen or Chilean pine (Araucaria imbricata), which often grows to a height of 100 ft. and is prized by the natives for its fruit. Three indigenous species of the beech—the roble (Fagus obliqua), coyhue (F. Dombeyi), and rauli (F. procera)—are widely diffused and highly prized for their wood, especially the first, which is misleadingly called roble (oak). Most of the woods used in construction and manufactures are found between the Bio-Bio river and the Taytao peninsula, among which are the alerce (Fitzroya patagonica), ciprés or Chiloé cypress (Libocedrus tetragona), the Chilean cypress (L. Chilensis), lingue (Persea lingue), laurel (Laurus aromatica), avellano (Guevina avellana), luma (Myrtus luma), espino (Acacia cavenia) and many others. Several exotic species have been introduced into this part of Chile, some of which have thriven even better than in their native habitats. Among these are the oak, elm, beech (F. sylvatica), walnut, chestnut, poplar, willow and eucalyptus. Through the central zone the plains are open and there are forests on the mountain slopes, but in the southern zone there are no plains, with the exception of small areas near the Straits of Magellan, and the forests are universal. In the variety, size and density of their growth these forests remind one of the tropics. They are made up, in great part, of the evergreen beech (Fagus betuloides), the deciduous antarctic beech (F. antarctica), and Winter’s bark (Drimys Winteri), intermingled with a dense undergrowth composed of a great variety of shrubs and plants, among which are Maytenus magellanica, Arbutus rigida, Myrtus memmolaria, two or three species of Berberis, wild currant (Ribes antarctica), a trailing blackberry, tree ferns, reed-like grasses and innumerable parasites. On the eastern side of the Cordillera, in the extreme south, the climate is drier and open, and grassy plains are found, but on the western side the dripping forests extend from an altitude of 1000 to 1500 ft. down to the level of the sea. A peculiar vegetable product of this inclement region is a small globular fungus growing on the bark of the beech, which is a staple article of food among the Fuegians—probably the only instance where a fungus is the bread of a people.
It is generally conceded that the potato originated in southern Chile, as it is found growing wild in Chiloé and neighbouring islands and on the adjacent mainland. The strawberry is also indigenous to these latitudes on both sides of the Andes, and Chile is credited with a species from which the cultivated strawberry derives some of its best qualities. Maize and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) were known in Chile before the arrival of Europeans, but it is not certain that they are indigenous. Species of the bean and pepper plant are also indigenous, and the former is said to have been cultivated by the natives. Among the many economic plants which have been introduced into Chile and have become important additions to her resources, the more prominent are wheat, barley, hemp and alfalfa (Medicago sativa), together with the staple European fruits, such as the apple, pear, peach, nectarine, grape, fig, olive and orange. The date-palm has also been introduced into the southern provinces of the desert region. Among the marine productions on the southern coast, a species of kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, merits special mention because of its extraordinary length, its habit of clinging to the rocks in strong currents and turbulent seas, and its being a shelter for innumerable species of marine animals. Captain FitzRoy found it growing from a depth of 270 ft.
Fauna.—The fauna of Chile is comparatively poor, both in species and individuals. A great part of the northern deserts is as barren of animal life as of vegetation, and the dense humid forests of the south shelter surprisingly few species. There are no large mammals in all this extensive region except the Cetacea and a species of the Phocidae of southern waters. Neither are there any dangerous species of Carnivora, which are represented by the timid puma (Felis concolor), three species of wildcats, three of the fox, two of Conepatus, a weasel, sea-otter and six species of seal. The rodents are the most numerously represented order, which includes the coypu or nutria (Myopotamus coypus), the chinchilla (Chinchilla laniger), the tuco-tuco (Ctenomys brasiliensis), a rabbit, and 12 species of mice—in all some 12 genera and 25 species. The coypu, sometimes called the South American beaver, inhabits the river-banks, and is highly prized for its fur. It is also found along the river-courses of Argentina. The ruminants are represented by a few species only—the guanaco (Auchenia huanaco), vicuna (A. vicugna), huemul (Cervus chilensis), which appears on the Chilean escutcheon, and the pudu deer, a small and not very numerous species. There are two species of the Edentata, Dasypus and Pichiciego, the latter very rare, and one of the opossums. European animals, such as horses, cattle, sheep, swine and goats, have been introduced into the country and do well. Sheep-raising has also been inaugurated with some degree of success in the vicinity of the Straits of Magellan. The avifauna, with the exception of waterfowl, is also limited to comparatively few species. Birds of prey are represented by the condor, vulture, two species of the carrion-hawk (Polyborus), and owl. The Chilean slopes of the Andes appear to be a favourite haunt of the condor, where neighbouring stock-raisers suffer severe losses at times from its attacks. The Insessores are represented by a number of species. Parrots are found as far south as Tierra del Fuego, where Darwin saw them feeding on seeds of the Winter’s bark. Humming-birds have a similar range on this coast, one species (Mellisuga Kingii) being quite numerous as far south as Tierra del Fuego. A characteristic genus is that of Pteroptochus, of which there are three or four species each characterized by some conspicuous peculiarity. These are P. megapodius, called El Turco by the natives, which is noticeable for its ungainly appearance and awkward gait; the P. albicollis, which inhabits barren hillsides and is called tapacollo from the manner of carrying its tail turned far forward over its back; the P. rubecula, of Chiloé, a small timid denizen of the gloomy forest, called the cheucau or chuca, whose two or three notes are believed by the superstitious natives to be auguries of impending success or disaster; and an allied species (Hylactes Tarnii, King) called the guid-guid or barking bird, whose cry is a close imitation of the yelp of a small dog. The southern coast and its inland waters are frequented by several species of petrel, among which are the Procellaria gigantea, whose strength and rapacity led the Spaniards to call it quebranta huesos (breakbones), the Puffinus cinereus, which inhabits the inland channels in large flocks, and an allied species (Puffinuria Berardii) which inhabits the inland sounds and resembles the auk in some particulars of habit and appearance. There are numerous species in these sheltered channels, inlets and sounds of geese, ducks, swans, cormorants, ibises, bitterns, red-beaks, curlew, snipe, plover and moorhens. Conspicuous among these are the great white swan (Cygnus anatoides), the black-necked swan (Anser nigricollis), the antarctic goose (Anas antarctica) and the “race-horse” or “steamer duck” (Micropterus brachypterus).
The marine fauna is less known than the others, but it is rich in species and highly interesting in its varied forms and characteristics. The northern coast has no sheltered waters of any considerable extent, and the shore slopes abruptly to a great depth, which gives it a marine life of no special importance. In the shoal waters about Juan Fernandez are found a species of codfish (possibly Gadus macrocephalus), differing in some particulars from the Newfoundland cod, and a large crayfish, both of which are caught for the Valparaiso market. The sheltered waters of the broken southern coast, however, are rich in fish and molluscs, especially in mussels, limpets and barnacles, which are the principal food resource of the nomadic Indian tribes of those regions. A large species of barnacle, Balanus psittacus, is found in great abundance from Concepción to Puerto Montt, and is not only eaten by the natives, by whom it is called pico, but is also esteemed a great delicacy in the markets of Valparaiso
- Notes of a Naturalist in South America, p. 134.
- Also classified as Nothofagus (Mirb.).