Extremophile

Atacama Desert

Content Cover Image

Atacama Desert, Chile. Source: NASA

caption Atacama Desert, Chile. Photograph credit: Miranda Loh

The Atacama Desert is an irregular elongated strip of desert along the northwest coast of Chile, essentially bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west. It extends nearly 1600 kilometres (km) and reaches a maximum width of 180 km. In many areas rainfall has never been recorded, and the Atacama is considered one of the driest deserts in the world. Consequently, an extremely arid, almost barren, landscape predominates. Despite the aridity of this desert, some cacti (Eulychnia), perennials (Nolana), and mesquite (Prosopis) occur in basins where occasional water accumulation occurs. Relatively few animal species have adapted to this arid environment and therefore, faunal diversity and density is extremely low. Even bacteria are scarce, and in many portions of the desert insects and fungi are absent. The intrinsic value of the Atacama Desert's plant and animal communities lies in the unique nature of their composition, the high levels of endemism and remarkable species adaptations for survival in some of Earth's most demanding conditions.

Location and general description

The Atacama Desert ecoregion occupies a continuous strip for nearly 1600 km along the narrow coast of the northern third of Chile from near Arica (18°24' S) southward to near La Serena (29°55' S). This desert is a sparsely populated virtually rainless plateau, running east from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. The average width is less than 100 km. The xeric conditions extend up to 1500 metres (m) above sea level on the drier slopes. The faulted coastal mountains (mostly 500 to 1000 m high) are composed of Cretaceous sediments (limestone and sandstone) over more ancient masses of crystalline rocks.

caption Chilean woodsta, Eulidia yarrellii, northern Chile @:Martin Reid

The Atacama Desert is considered to be one of the driest coastal deserts in the world. Vegetation must contend with an annual rainfall of 0.6 millimetres (mm) in Arica and 2.1 mm in Iquique. The Atacama becomes slightly less arid as it moves southward. The average monthly temperatures in Iquique range from 14.5°C in September to 21°C in March. Further limiting plant growth is the extremely low total organic carbon and nitrogen content of the Atacama soils; for example, total organic carbon levels are lower than those of the Sahara Desert and the Mojave Desert by significant amounts. While bacterial occurrences are even scarce compared to other deserts, there are a number of extremophiles and lithic microbial communities which specialize in exploiting minerals such as dolomite, quartz, gypsum, halite and limestone.

Topography and substrate combine to influence the patterns of moisture availability and areas of suitable habitat. Where isolated mountains or steep coastal slopes intercept the clouds, a fog zone develops with a stratus layer concentrated against the hillsides. The moisture allows the development of fog-zone plant communities termed lomas (small hills) near the coast and in lower portions of numerous gorges (quebradas) between sea level and 1100 m. These plant formations also have been called the fertile belt, fog oases, or meadows on the desert. Plant communities of the lomas comprise mixtures of annual and short-lived perennial and woody scrub vegetation.

The northern coastal zone has almost no vegetation. Among some of the plant species found in this zone are cacti growing at elevations over 500 metres. Eulychnia iquiquensis and Copiapoa sp. Near Iquique, there is large community of Tillandsia landbeckii growing at 990 to 1100 metres in elevation. The valleys along streams support plant communities that are composed of trees: including Chilean Mesquite (Prosopis chilensis), Tamarugo (P. tamarugo), Humboldt's Willow (Salix humboldtiana), Schinus areira, Porknut (Acacia macracantha) and Spiny Holdback (Caesalpinia spinosa) and other shrubby and herbaceous plants. On slopes moistened by drizzle during the austral winter, sparse strands of Tillandsia spp. may exist in association with a number of lichen taxa.

Near the town of Antofagastsa, the region is practically devoid of vegetation except for Eulychnia iquiquensis and Copiapoa spp. Only some brush plants occur along the coastal plateaus, dependent for survival on the moisture of persistent fog; such plants include Heliotropium pycnophyllum, Pingo-pingo (Ephedra breana) and Lycium deserti. In places away from the area of fog formation, the desert is almost lifeless. In these areas, even decomposition does not occur. Some of the dead vegetation is estimated to be thousands of years old.

The southern Atacama Desert has a fog-zone vegetation is populated with approximately 230 species of vascular plants.  Euphorbia lactiflua and Copao (Eulychnia iquiquensis) are dominant species in the central area of this zone. Other shrubby species in the zone include Echinopsis coquimbana, Oxalis gigantea, Lycium stenophyllum, Proustia cuneifolia, Croton chilensis and Tillandsia geissei. Bromeliads are also present along the coastal flats in this southern part of the Atacama Desert, and include Deuterocohnia chrysantha and Puya boliviensis, a Chilean endemic plant.

The southernmost area in the ecoregion is near Chañaral. This area has communities of shrubs such as Skytanthus acutus, Encelia canescens, Frankenia chilensis, and Nolana rostrata. Annuals and perennials include Emory's Rockdaisy (Perityle emoryi), Oenothera coquimbensis, Adesmia latistipula, Astragalus coquimbensis, Cruckshanksia verticillata, Fagonia chilensis and Tetragonia angustifolia.

Biodiversity features

caption Atacama Desert, Chile. Source: Jorge Tutor

The intrinsic value of the Atacama Desert's plant and animal communities lies in the unique nature of their composition, the high levels of endemism and some remarkable species adaptations for survival in some of conditions among the Earth's most demanding. The narrowly endemic flora is of particular significance. There are some traditional uses of species by the local inhabitants, e.g. food from Oxalis spp., medicinals from Salvia tubiflora and taxa within the genus Ephedra.

Few fauna have adapted to successfully inhabit this extremely arid habitat. Only 120 vertebrate taxa are found in the ecoregion. Those scorpions and insect taxa found here are prey of lizards (e.g. Tropidurus spp.) and of birds such as small passerines of the genus Geositta.  An occasional raptor can be observed scavenging on the carrion of domestic animals. Mammalian species are also few in number, with Darwin's leaf-eared mouse (Phyllotis darwini) and the South American gray fox (Pseudalopex griseus) encountered infrequently. The presence of scattered shrubs, herbaceous plants and lichens, enables certain specialized insects and poisonous spiders to colonize these deserts.

Flora

There are approximately 550 species of vascular plants representing 225 genera and 80 families in the lomas formations. The most diverse families are the Asteraceae, Nolanaceae, Cactaceae, Boraginaceae, and Apiaceae. Plant endemism is very high (in excess of 60 percent). Most of the plant species cited earlier are endemic to the Atacama Desert. Three cacti are endemic to the northern part of the Atacama Desert; in particular these endemic plants include Eulychnia iquiquensis  and Copiapoa spp. Endemic shrubs of the ecoregion include Berberis litoralis, Anisomeria littoralis, Atriplex taltalensis, Adesmia viscidissima, Croton chilensisNicotiana solanifolia, Teucrium nudicaule, Monttea chilensis, Stevia trifida, Senecio almeidae and Gutierrezia taltalensis. Endemic plants near Tocopilla are Malesherbia tocopillana, Mathewsia collina and Nolana tocopillensis. A greater diversity of flora and fauna can be found on the lomas.

Mammals

Several mammalian species are found in the Atacama Desert, including the minute Near Threatened Atacama Myotis (Myotis atacamensis); the Elegant Fat-tailed Opossum (Thylamys elegans); the Manso Grass Mouse (Akodon olivaceus); and the Osgood's Leaf-eared Mouse (Phyllotis osgoodi).

Birdlife

Several birds, such as the Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) and the Blue-black Grassquit (Volatinia jacarina) visit the lomas at the onset of austral winter, when many insect pupae hatch. The lomas in bloom are also visited by several species of hummingbirds (e.g., Rhodopis spp., Myrtis spp., and Thaumastura spp.). There are six restricted species of birds found in the north of this ecoregion and the Sechura Desert ecoregion; these birds include the Chilean Woodstar (Eulidia yarrellii), Thick-billed Miner (Geositta crassirostris), White-throated Earthcreeper (Upucerthia albigula), Cactus Canastero (Asthenes cactorum), Slender-billed Finch (Xenospingus concolor, and Tamarugo Conebill (Conirostrum tamarugense). The Andean Condor is also found here in the Atacama. The Chilean Woodstar, Slender-billed Finch, and Tamarugo Conebill are examples of threatened species occurring in the ecoregion. Humboldt's Penguin is found at the northern end of its range in the Pacific Ocean fringe off the Atacama.

Reptiles

The South American Leaf-toed Gecko (Phyllodactylus gerrhopygus), found only in southern Peru and northern Chile, occurs in the Atacama Desert.

Amphibians

Near-endemic amphibians are represented by the Vallenar toad (Rhinella atacamensis), which occurs in and near oases and streams year-around. Breeding occurs in permanent pools (including livestock water tanks), streams and rivers.Eggs are laid in long strings, and the larvae develop where these were laid. R. atacamensis achieves is highest altitude occurrence at 2574 metres near Mostazal.

Current status

The region has been moderately affected by roads and mining operations. The northern area of the ecoregion has been especially affected by overgrazing of domestic livestock, collection of firewood, and commercial gathering of rare plants, including the Chilean wine palm, various cacti and bulbs.

Some nearby areas have archaeological importance. The beauty and rarity of the lomas formations provide opportunities for tourism combined with scientific studies. If the impact on the delicate communities is controlled through supervision, lomas formations can be enjoyed by the public and preserved. Environmental education on the importance, rarity, and the unusual characteristics of these natural resources is desperately needed. For example, Quebrada El León needs some recuperation from overuse and could become a lasting and informative oasis as a nature reserve for residents of Caldera and Copiapó.

Three protected areas exist within the extreme desert region. Pan de Azúcar National Park (established in 1986, IUCN category II) covers 438 square kilometers (km2). It has been recommended that this park be expanded northward to include Quebrada Esmeralda (25°50' S) and Quebrada de Las Lozas (25°41' S), which would protect areas very rich in cacti diversity. La Chimba National Reserve (IUCN category IV) of 30 km2 was recently established and lies approximately 15 km north of Antofagasta. Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve, 1023 km2 in size, is one of the key areas for the conservation of the threatened tamarugo conebill (Conirostrum tamarugense).

Types and severity of threats

A few port towns exist in this desert. Iquique, Caldera, and Antofagasta are located on precarious sea-eroded terraces at the base of coastal cliffs. These towns are the outlet for the numerous mining centers in the interior tectonic basins. The wealth of the region lies in its mineral resources (copper, sodium chloride, sodium nitrate, iodine salts), not in its spare biotic resources.

Most threats to this ecoregion are closely associated with the few human population centers. Specifically, these include increased urbanization, pollution, road construction, intensive livestock grazing (numerous goats), fuelwood gathering, commercial plant collecting, and erosion.

Since many sites have become accessible by road only recently (i.e., within the past 12 years), Atacama's specialized ecosystems remained well preserved until recent times. Road construction in association with mining operations is increasing human occupation in the region. With the rise in copper prices during the 1980s, reactivation of mining activities utilizing large quantities of sulphuric acid has had an essentially undocumented impact on terrestrial and marine life.

Justification of ecoregion delineation

The Atacama Desert is distinguished as being one of the driest places in the Americas and said to resemble a lunar landscape. Inititial delineation’s followed Di Castri, however for the linework we followed Simmonetti and Montenegro to draw the northern and southern boundaries. Eastern delineations follow the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) boundary for the neighboring puna ecoregion in the high Andes, and the western delineation is the Pacific Ocean.

Further reading

  • Anderson, E. F., M. Bonilla-F., A. E. Hoffmann-J., and N. P. Taylor. 1990. Succulent plant conservation studies and training in Chile. World Wildlife Fund-U.S., Washington, D.C.
  • Aronson, J. 1990. Desert plants of use and charm from northern Chile. Desert Plants 10(2): 79-86.
  • Benoit-C., I.L., editor. 1989. Red Book on Chilean terrestrial flora (Part One). Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF), Santiago, Chile.
  • Bittmann, B. 1988. Recursos y supervivencia en el Desierto de Atacama. in Masuda, S., editors, Recursos naturales Andinos. Tokyo: University of Tokyo.
  • Börgel, R. 1973. The coastal desert of Chile. Pages 111-114 in D.H.K. Amiran, and A.W. Wilson, editors. Coastal deserts: their natural and human environments. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN: 0816503125
  • Di Castri, F. 1968. Esquisse Ecologique du Chili. Biologique de l'Amerique Australe 4. CNRS, Paris, France.
  • Dillon, M.O. and A.E. Hoffmann-J. 1997. Lomas Formations of the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile. In S.D. Davis, V.H. Heywood, O. Herrera-Macbryde, J. Villa-Lobos and A.C. Hamilton, editors, Centres of Plant Diversity. A Guide and Strategy for their Conservation. Volume 3. The Americas. pp. 528-535. IUCN Publications Unit, Cambridge, U.K.
  • Dorst J. 1967. South America and Central America: a natural history. Hamish Hamilton, London. ISBN: 0394446429
  • Lustig, L. K. 1970. Appraisal of research on geomorphology and surface hydrology of desert environments. In W.G. McGinnies, B.J. Goldman, and P. Paylore, editors. Deserts of the world: An appraisal of research into their physical and biological environments. University of Arizona Press, Tucson. ISBN: 0816501815
  • Miller, Frederic P., Agnes F. Vandome, John McBrewster. 2009. Atacama Desert. VDM Publishing. 128 pages/li>
  • Roig, V. 1999. Atacama desert. Page 54 in M. E. Mares, editor, Encyclopedia of deserts. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. ISBN: 0806131462
  • Rundel, P. W. 1981. The matorral zone of central Chile. Pages 175-201 in F. di Castri, D.W. Goodall, and R. L. Specht, editors. Ecosystems of the World Vol. 11. Elsevier, Amsterdam. ISBN: 044442282X
  • Simmonetti, J.A. and G. Montenegro. 1994. Conservation and use of biodiversity of the arid and semiarid zones of Chile. Presented at the International Workshop "Conservación y uso sostenible de la biodiversidad en zonas áridas y semiáridas de América Latina", March 1994, Guadalajara, Mexico. Unpublished document.

 

Disclaimer: This article contains certain information that was originally published by the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.

 

 

 

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Citation

Hogan, C., & Fund, W. (2013). Atacama Desert. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbecfc7896bb431f68eefd

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