Patagonia: Species at Risk
Stony Corals (Scleractinia)
Chilean fjords contain robust communities of solitary stony corals, which cover banks of the northern fjords at densities never before observed in other parts of the country. Three species of stony coral live in the fjords: Desmophyllum dianthus, Caryophyllia huinayensis and Tethocyathus endesa. Chilean fjords offer scientists a rare opportunity to study these species in shallow, scuba-accessible waters.
Stony corals grow on rock walls, boulders, hard shells or barnacles. In sunny sections of the fjords, Patagonian corals may host colorful symbiotic algae that lend pink, yellow and green hues to the coral. Snails, sponges, tubeworms and red algae also grow on and around the coral banks.
Flamboyant pink sea anemones bloom from the seafloor, while another more subtle species stay hidden in a moss-green hue while feeding. Southern Chile boasts 42 sea anemone species from Chiloé to Cape Horn, compared to 63 throughout Chile. Most of this diversity is concentrated in northern Patagonia and 11 anemones are endemics, found only in southern Chile.
Anemones of northern Patagonia are the most studied and include three distinct groups: shallow species in fjords and channels, species that show emergence in northern fjords but usually live in deep water; species of the exposed coast and outer channels. Pale orange tips surround the white starry center of Anthothoe chilensis, the most commonly sighted anemone of northern inner fjords.
Sea Fans, Sea Whips and Soft Corals (Octocorallia)
Tempano Fjord is known for a heavy rain of glacial sediments carpeting the seafloor and is now known to be home to the soft coral Alcyonium glaciophilum. Clinging to the glacier-carved fjord wall at 10 to 15 meters depth, this soft coral is one of few that can survive the rain of sediment to earn its name, which means “glacier lover.”
Recent explorations have turned up more new species of sea fan and soft coral in central Patagonia, including Alcyonium jorgei and A.yepayek. The pink soft coral A. roseum also lives in the region, nestled into the stems of gorgonian sea whips and tubeworms.
Sharks and Rays
Few species of sharks and rays are known from Patagonia and in Chile the number of species of sharks and rays declines sharply south of Puerto Montt. Two species of Chilean rays are concentrated south of Puerto Montt: the graytail skate and the Magellan skate. These southern species also extend their range around the tip of South America into Argentinean waters.
Approximately one third of the shark and ray species in Chile are found nationwide, including Patagonia. These species, including the Chilean catshark, the pejegallo or elephantfish and the humpback smooth-hound, can be found in the fjords and channels of the Patagonian region. Among these, the Chilean catshark can only be found in the southeastern Pacific Ocean.
Seals and Sea Lions
Seals and sea lions are found throughout southern Chile, including one species of sea lion and five seal species. Both the South American sea lion and the South American fur seal have been observed using this area for foraging, breeding and nursing. The Chiloé-Corcovado area is the northernmost known breeding ground for the South American fur seal. Elephant seals are also regularly seen in the northern fjords.
Notably, the endemic Juan Fernandez fur seal has been seen foraging in the productive waters of Chiloé-Corcovado, 1200 kilometers southeast of its home territory in the Juan Fernandez Islands.
Chile’s fjord region is also home to two endangered species of otters. The marine otter or chungungo, Lontra felina, is native to Peru, Chile and Argentina. Its historic range extends from northern Peru south to Cape Horn, Chile and around to Isla de Los Estados, Argentina. The southern river otter or huillín typically inhabits inland rivers of Chile and Argentina. However, this otter is almost exclusively marine in Southern Chile despite its freshwater origins. Both otters now have extremely patchy distributions due to the impacts of illegal hunting and habitat degradation.
Two of the main threats to otters today are habitat destruction and water pollution, though poaching may still threaten otters in some locations. Some large populations of marine otters still exist along the west coast of Chiloé Island and breeding has been observed here in the summer months. River otters are relatively numerous in far southern Chile. Despite their endangered status, there are no complete population studies for either species.
Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
Whales, dolphins and porpoises are frequently seen in between Chiloé Island to the southern Corcovado area, including twenty-three different species. Large numbers of blue whales forage and nurse their young in the Gulf of Corcovado during the summer and autumn months.
Mother-calf pairs of Peale’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and Burmeister’s porpoises have also been observed in several locations in the fjords, suggesting the possibility of breeding sites in these areas. Humpback, sei, fin, right, minke and sperm whales have been seen feeding or traveling through the area.
Areas this far north were not previously thought to be part of the feeding grounds of the southern Pacific humpback stocks. However, numerous humpback whales have been sighted feeding in southern Patagonia, at the western side of the Straits of Magellan.
The Chilean dolphin, a species endemic to southern Chile, forages, breeds and nurses its young in sheltered waters throughout the region. This species is one of the smallest and least studied dolphins. The most common smaller dolphin in the fjords and inner seas is the Peale’s dolphin. In southern Patagonia, these dolphins are drawn to waters in and around beds of the giant kelp.
Both Chilean and Peale’s dolphins appear to prefer different fine-scale habitats that do not overlap. In general, Chilean dolphins prefer cooler, more turbid water than the Peale’s dolphin. In one example from the northern fjords, a population of Peale’s dolphins inhabits the Comau fjord, while the neighboring Reñihue Fjord hosts a population of Chilean dolphins.
Endemic Chilean Dolphin
Within the fjord region of Chile are species found nowhere else in the world. The small gray and white Chilean dolphin is one such species. With a distribution from Valparaíso to Cape Horn, Chilean dolphins inhabit sheltered coastal waters such as the fjords and channels of Patagonia. Here, Chilean dolphins are most often found foraging in colder, murkier waters at the mouths of streams and rivers.
Chilean dolphins appear to inhabit separate areas from their counterparts, the Peale’s dolphin, and may be displaced by human activities that intrude upon their preferred habitats. Many aspects of the biology and ecology of Chilean dolphins are poorly known. Dolphins were hunted in large numbers in Chile until the early 1980s and today, it is difficult to tell the status of the population due to lack of information on population size and patterns of movement.
The fjord region of southern Chile provides a diverse array of habitats, attracting a great number of birds that would otherwise be found primarily on continental lakes, rivers, exposed coast or the open ocean. A wide variety of seabirds have been observed in the channels and fjords of southern Chile and the full extent of their distribution is not well studied.
The endangered black-browed albatross occasionally ventures into the fjord region. Birds taking refuge from the open ocean in these relatively sheltered waters include skuas, petrels, shearwaters and various albatross species. Freshwater birds of the fjords include ducks, teals, geese and swans. Numerous shore birds such as sandpipers, plovers, gulls, oystercatchers, yellowlegs and cormorants can be found on the margins of channels and fjords.
In addition to the albatross, many more seabirds in this region are in decline and have been heavily impacted by human activities. Several are ranked as near-threatened throughout their range by the World Conservation Union, including the red-legged cormorant, Magellanic penguin and Chilean flamingo. Nesting birds have been observed on islands such as Lillihaupi at the mouth of Comau Fjord, including the near-threatened red-legged cormorant.
Though the Chilean flamingo is a resident of high-altitude lakes, it comes to the fjords and rests in nearby wetlands during its migration. Penguins are also found throughout southern Chile, most commonly Magellanic penguins with rockhopper penguins in the far south.