for National Geographic News
A biosphere reserve on the southern tip of South America owes its existence, in part, to the diversity of mosses found there.
The Cape Horn Archipelago, a chain of wind-battered islands in the southernmost reaches of Chile, contains only a few tree species but a bounty of rare and unique mosses, according to William Buck, the curator of bryophytes at the New York Botanical Garden (map of Chile).
Bryophytes are a group of nonflowering plants that include mosses, liverworts, and hornworts.
Buck has traveled to the Cape Horn Archipelago each of the past four years to catalog the region's mosses.
Inclement weather, rough seas, and a decades-long border dispute with neighboring Argentina have kept the archipelago pristine and unexplored. Many of the islands have never been studied, Buck says.
To date, he and his colleagues have documented numerous mosses previously unknown in the archipelago and several others that are new to science.
"I'm personally just interested in what mosses are there and how they are related to one another," Buck said.
According to Buck, mosses are amazing plants because they can almost completely shrivel to nothing and enter suspended animation—in which all their vital functions cease—for years. Then, with a few drops of water, they can spring back to life. (Related: "British Moss Breaks Century of Celibacy" [January 23, 2003].)
But the findings, Buck adds, have aided local conservation efforts to bring greater environmental protections to the region and are helping to create a niche form of ecotourism.
"Like the Amazon is important for global diversity of primates and birds, [Cape Horn] is important for the diversity of bryophytes," said Christopher Anderson, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity in Santiago, Chile.
In 2005, the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organization (UNESCO) approved a Chilean government application to declare the Cape Horn Archipelago a biosphere reserve.
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