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All rights reserved. A Chilean group mounted an expedition last month to the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve , which lies within the vast Magellanic sub-Antarctic eco-region, in the hope that the experience would spur action for the future well-being of the biocultural wealth of Patagonia's wild lands and waters. The team consisted of some 30 leaders from various sectors of Chilean society, including scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers.
I, in Chile to learn about some of its conservation approaches, was invited to cover the November trip for National Geographic. The 19,square-mile 49,square-kilometer Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve "harbors the world's cleanest rain and cleanest streams," explained the expedition's guide, Chilean biologist Ricardo Rozzi. This has to change! The Cape Horn region, although remote and sparsely inhabited, is vulnerable to such global threats as climate change, invasive species, and cultural homogenization.
Patagonia's ice fields, which the group admired from the air as we arrived, span nearly 7, square miles 18, square kilometers —the largest ice fields in the Southern Hemisphere outside Antarctica. But they're projected to shrink fast, contributing to rising sea levels that would displace people and animals and alter habitats along coastlines throughout the Cape Horn archipelago. What made this achievement unusual was that Rozzi advocated protection not on the basis of big, charismatic animals generally favored by advocates for such programs , but of small, unglamorous plants: mosses.
Our journey began at Omora Ethnobotanical Park , the reserve's research and education hub, where mosses are ubiquitous. One of his students demonstrated that filtering power by pouring a glass of murky water over a patch of moss and capturing the clear water that drained through it.
I scooped up a handful of water. It was divinely fresh. Mosses so enthrall Rozzi that he never misses a chance to push what he calls "ecotourism with a hand lens"—an idea that's already been taken up in Alaska's Denali National Park. In that spirit, I'm soon darting around with my magnifying glass, marveling at the intricate beauty of mosses—some of Earth's oldest plants. These miniature "forests" are a revelation to a big-species researcher like me who has spent much of her adult life studying large mammals in Africa.