AMATEUR FOSSIL HUNTING

28 Mar, 2017 | Marianthi Baklava

Tourism

Photos: Nick Somers 

A disappearing glacier peels back to unveil an ocean of symbiosis

Chacaltaya Mountain (30km from La Paz) is the site of a 5404-metre-high, 18,000-year-old glacier of the same name, which an international team of scientists observed beginning to disappear due to global warming around 1992. Now, 25 years later, the glacier is completely gone. Chacaltaya was also home to the world’s highest ski resort: what remains of the resort is cared for by Samuel Mendoza, the former ski lift operator. Visitors can no longer ski, but there are tours to the site every day.

I had the chance to hike up Chacaltaya on one of the rare days on which it actually saw snowfall, although on our descent, the snow had already melted. We ascended the mountain along a rickety dirt road, holding on for dear life until the vehicle was overwhelmed by hail and its wheels no longer found grip. Unsurprisingly, I was soon told it would be safer to disembark and go the rest of the way on foot. With me were Giovanni Rios and his team.  


Giovanni Rios is a paceño architect and amateur fossil enthusiast. You only have to mention fósiles for his entire face to light up as he reaches into the bag of goodies he has brought in preparation. His passion for palaeontology began in his early kindergarten years when he was always to be found drawing dinosaurs. After that, he joined a science club in his primary school. His first science project was at 11 years old, when he managed to get into contact with the then director of paleontology at the Museum of Natural History in La Paz, Federico Anaya. ‘It was hard because in Bolivia there isn’t a lot of information. I just got lucky,’ he says. Through this project, he tells me that this expert took a liking to him and allowed him to stay in the museum to work closely with the collection of fossils, cleaning them. ‘He also told me where to find them,’ he adds. And this is why we are here at Chacaltaya.

Giovanni says, ‘The site of Chacaltaya was once a sea that resembled what is now the Arctic Ocean.’ He is here to understand what the aquatic communities living in this place were like. ‘Books only show diagrams without explaining how the organisms lived and interacted with one another,’ he laments.


Walking together across the mountaintop, despite fighting altitude sickness and slight vertigo, we did find some samples at Chacaltaya, including the fossilised remains of a starfish (in the Asteroidea class). Giovanni explains, ‘Due to the overlapping pattern visible on the surface of the stone, there could be more organisms contained within,’ something that he hopes scientific analysis, such as ‘the use of an x-ray machine, will uncover’.


Giovanni imagines that in the deep ancient ocean, giant squids, of the genus Architeuthis and family  Architeuthidae, would have been at the top of the food chain. Together we found a piece of sediment on which were imprinted the suckers which line each tentacle. They were formidable predators because they could use their tentacles to prise open shells and eat the organisms inside, and also due to their huge size. Trilobites, however, found a way to protect themselves from the squids: by hiding in the forests of lirios del mar.


The first to study the fossils at Chacaltaya was Roman Kozłowski, a Polish scientist who had studied at the University of Paris and later received the position of Director of Geological Sciences at the Mining School in Oruro. He stayed in Bolivia from 1913 to 1921 before returning to Europe, and collected the first trilobites; conchas, or seashells; and starfish at the site. Trilobites are a fossil group which show an extinct invertebrate with an exoskeleton, extinct sea arachnomorpha arthropods forming the Trilobita class. It is the pattern of this exoskeleton which we saw in one of our rock samples, and trilobites are known to shed their exoskeleton. It is rarer to find an entire body, but Giovanni had such samples in his collection.


There are many skeptics in Bolivia who doubt the confirmed scientific reason for the appearance of sea organisms at the top of the mountain, believing it to be the result of some great Biblical Flood. Giovanni tells me that it happened when the Nazca tectonic plate (Oceanic) collided with the South American (Continental), forming the Cordillera de los Andes. This is still ongoing, and happens when the collision causes the rocks on the edge of the continental plate to fold, thereby producing fold mountains. In this manner, the fossils at Chacaltaya were raised 5000 metres high, even though before they had been far below sea level.

Chacaltaya Mountain (30km from La Paz) is the site of a 5404-metre-high, 18,000-year-old glacier of the same name, which an international team of scientists observed beginning to disappear due to global warming around 1992. Now, 25 years later, the glacier is completely gone. Chacaltaya was also home to the world’s highest ski resort: what remains of the resort is cared for by Samuel Mendoza, the former ski lift operator. Visitors can no longer ski, but there are tours to the site every day.

I had the chance to hike up Chacaltaya on one of the rare days on which it actually saw snowfall, although on our descent, the snow had already melted. We ascended the mountain along a rickety dirt road, holding on for dear life until the vehicle was overwhelmed by hail and its wheels no longer found grip. Unsurprisingly, I was soon told it would be safer to disembark and go the rest of the way on foot. With me were Giovanni Rios and his team.  

Image title


Giovanni Rios is a paceño architect and amateur fossil enthusiast. You only have to mention fósiles for his entire face to light up as he reaches into the bag of goodies he has brought in preparation. His passion for palaeontology began in his early kindergarten years when he was always to be found drawing dinosaurs. After that, he joined a science club in his primary school. His first science project was at 11 years old, when he managed to get into contact with the then director of paleontology at the Museum of Natural History in La Paz, Federico Anaya. ‘It was hard because in Bolivia there isn’t a lot of information. I just got lucky,’ he says. Through this project, he tells me that this expert took a liking to him and allowed him to stay in the museum to work closely with the collection of fossils, cleaning them. ‘He also told me where to find them,’ he adds. And this is why we are here at Chacaltaya.

Giovanni says, ‘The site of Chacaltaya was once a sea that resembled what is now the Arctic Ocean.’ He is here to understand what the aquatic communities living in this place were like. ‘Books only show diagrams without explaining how the organisms lived and interacted with one another,’ he laments.


Walking together across the mountaintop, despite fighting altitude sickness and slight vertigo, we did find some samples at Chacaltaya, including the fossilised remains of a starfish (in the Asteroidea class). Giovanni explains, ‘Due to the overlapping pattern visible on the surface of the stone, there could be more organisms contained within,’ something that he hopes scientific analysis, such as ‘the use of an x-ray machine, will uncover’.


Giovanni imagines that in the deep ancient ocean, giant squids, of the genus Architeuthis and family  Architeuthidae, would have been at the top of the food chain. Together we found a piece of sediment on which were imprinted the suckers which line each tentacle. They were formidable predators because they could use their tentacles to prise open shells and eat the organisms inside, and also due to their huge size. Trilobites, however, found a way to protect themselves from the squids: by hiding in the forests of lirios del mar.


The first to study the fossils at Chacaltaya was Roman Kozłowski, a Polish scientist who had studied at the University of Paris and later received the position of Director of Geological Sciences at the Mining School in Oruro. He stayed in Bolivia from 1913 to 1921 before returning to Europe, and collected the first trilobites; conchas, or seashells; and starfish at the site. Trilobites are a fossil group which show an extinct invertebrate with an exoskeleton, extinct sea arachnomorpha arthropods forming the Trilobita class. It is the pattern of this exoskeleton which we saw in one of our rock samples, and trilobites are known to shed their exoskeleton. It is rarer to find an entire body, but Giovanni had such samples in his collection.


There are many skeptics in Bolivia who doubt the confirmed scientific reason for the appearance of sea organisms at the top of the mountain, believing it to be the result of some great Biblical Flood. Giovanni tells me that it happened when the Nazca tectonic plate (Oceanic) collided with the South American (Continental), forming the Cordillera de los Andes. This is still ongoing, and happens when the collision causes the rocks on the edge of the continental plate to fold, thereby producing fold mountains. In this manner, the fossils at Chacaltaya were raised 5000 metres high, even though before they had been far below sea level.


In his collection, Giovanni has over 7000 fossils, collected from all over Bolivia. He privately catalogs and organizes them, hoping to contribute to some future scientific studies. ‘I hope that someone will come along to continue my work, my dream: to display each discovery, and to open museums on the most important palaeontological sites in Bolivia,’ he sighs wistfully.


In his collection, Giovanni has over 7000 fossils, collected from all over Bolivia. He privately catalogs and organizes them, hoping to contribute to some future scientific studies. ‘I hope that someone will come along to continue my work, my dream: to display each discovery, and to open museums on the most important palaeontological sites in Bolivia,’ he sighs wistfully.

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