Field Journal: Of Lagunas and Lithium

From the Field posts

Dr. Felicity Arengo is the associate director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. This month, she is conducting a census of flamingo populations in remote regions of South America. Read the first post in the series here. 

Often home to hundreds of flamingos, Laguna Purulla is now protected thanks to conservation efforts. ©F.Arengo

Often home to hundreds of flamingos, Laguna Purulla is now protected thanks to conservation efforts.

©F.Arengo


The last few days have been good but tough, and mostly spent bouncing around on dirt roads above 4,000 m (13,000 ft). We visited Salar de Hombre Muerto, a big salt flat where the one of the world’s longest-running and highest-producing lithium mines operates. While lithium is plentiful here, water is in short supply. The “gold” of the altiplano, water is the lifeline of all species, and it’s also required for any industry. So this scarce resource is key to both flamingo populations and local economy.

We usually find a couple hundred flamingos here, representing all three South American species. They’re at home in the extensive vegas, green spongy areas that form when freshwater streams pool near salt flats. These bog-like expanses support tremendous biodiversity, but are very sensitive to changes in hydrology. Mining activity, thirsty for the fresh water, frequently impacts these areas, forming dams that interrupt water flow, essentially killing everything downstream. Unfortunately, that is what we find at the Trapiche River near the Salar. The Trapiche vega looks like it was burned, the result of having been cut off from its water source by a dam. 

Wetlands like Vega Trapiche are threatened by activities that alter the hydrology, like dams, diversions, and drainages. ©F. Arengo 

Wetlands like Vega Trapiche are threatened by activities that alter the hydrology, like dams, diversions, and drainages.

©F. Arengo 


It’s a sharp contrast to Laguna Purulla, 200 km south but a seven-hour drive away guided by a GPS track indicating “only 4x4.” Laguna Purulla is one of our most remote sites and has been protected within a larger provincial reserve since 2012, mostly because of the work spearheaded by Grupo de Conservación de Flamencos Altoandinos-GCFA (High Andes Flamingo Conservation Group): simultaneous censuses, periodical monitoring, and working closely with local authorities, communities, and other stakeholders.

Our long, dusty drive is rewarded with the sight of around 400 Andean Flamingos, 200 Puna Flamingos, and a handful of Chilean Flamingos. Five years ago we found 200 nesting pairs of Andean Flamingos here, the first ever recorded for this site. No such luck this time, though it is not uncommon for long-lived birds like flamingos not to breed every year, or for colonies not to establish. These satellite nesting sites, though they are not used every year, are very important. They act as “insurance policies” under widely changing climatic conditions that can impact regular nesting sites, putting them out of commission suddenly.

We packed our scopes when the wind started to pick up, announcing rain. As it happens, we were just in time. As we hurried along the mountain landscape towards a wide rainbow, some of the most spectacular lightning I’ve ever seen chased us down the sandy track.

Read the next post in the series here.