Posted by: Rob Viens | August 7, 2012

Home, Home on the Campos

On August 7th Darwin was still restricted from wandering the countryside – something he had enjoyed doing regularly in Brazil. No doubt he was frustrated, and his entry was short today:

“To my great grief it is not deemed prudent to walk in the country.—so I was obliged to go ashore to the dirty town of M: Video.— After dinner went out collecting to Rat Island.” (Aug 7)

So what exactly was he missing by not being able to traverse the Uruguayan “outback”? We’ll as it turns out, Uruguay consists of one major ecosystem – the Campos (also called the Uruguayan savannah).  A few words on that today…

The Campos is the name used to describe the subtropical grasslands found along the east coast of central South America (see the map below from  http://www.fao.org). These ecosystems are dominated by grasses and herbs, though scattered shrubs and trees are present in some parts of the Campos (usually around rivers).

Campos Map

In Uruguay, the Campos contains over 400 grass species alone. Where water accumulates (or around rivers) it is typical to find some trees (include palms). Grazers include several species of deer and the capybara (more on these fellows in a few days when Darwin encounters one). There are also about 400 species of birds (see a full list here on the Avibase) including the Greater Rhea (again, Darwin will spend some time with these ratites in the near future, so more on them later).

Some images of different vegetation types found on the southern Campos of Uruguay (ref listed as a footnote):

Vegetation of the Campos

In many parts of Uruguay, these rich grasslands have been converted to pastureland for cattle, sheep and horses (all introduced to the region in the past 500 years).  The result – there is very little of the original ecosystem remaining and the Campos is considered to be critically endangered. To put this in perspective – over 80% of the land in Uruguay is associated with cattle ranching alone. Not only do the cattle have a direct impact on the grasslands (e.g., trampling native vegetation), but the disturbance they cause has opened the door for many invasive plants to move in and displace the native flora. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) this disturbance has already led to “the extinction of the collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla), jaguar (Panthera onca), and jaguarundi (Herpailurus yaguarondi)” in Uruguay.

Giant Anteater (from Wikipedia Commons):

Giant Anteater

Some efforts are being made to protect the remaining Campos, but much like the grasslands of the central US, there is not much left. (RJV)

Photo ref: Mourelle, D., Prieto, A.R., 2012, Modern pollen assemblages of surface samples and their relationships to vegetation in the campos region of Uruguay, Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, v. 181, p. 22-33. (link to abstract)

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