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Paws For Thought: Patagonian Dragon

Who? We are pleased to introduce to you the Andiperla willinki, often known as the perla de los Andes, or the Patagonian dragon.

Where? The Southern Patagonian Andes, and spots throughout the glacial area of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, such as Lake Viedma, and the Perito Moreno Glacier.

Why am I interested? Okay granted, they might not be quite the fire-breathing, green-scaled, St. George-worthy variety which are ten a penny in myth and legend, but Patagonia’s dragons are far more than just your average insect! One of the most incredible extremophiles on the planet, it is the only creature capable of braving and surviving long-term the icy winds and freezing conditions of Patagonia’s inhospitable, wind-whipped glaciers...

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Meet Patagonia's very own dragon!

Not your ordinary dragon...

These critters are only 20mm long, and are usually black or coffee-coloured. They have three pairs of legs, and belong to the insect order plecoptera, more commonly known as stoneflies. Nourished by tiny algae and bacteria living in the ice, they are also apterous (meaning they have no wings), and their eyes have cleverly adapted to function in the dim conditions part and parcel of life underwater.

Staying alive

Incredibly, their bodies have evolved with their own personal anti-freeze system, and it is quite literally their lifeblood. Called glycerol, it is a natural cryoprotectant, and this sugar alcohol creates strong hydrogen bonds with the water molecules in the insect’s body, rendering its freezing point an incredible -37°C! Scientists are fascinated by this survival system which keeps the insects alive and scuttling, as it could have great repercussions for future techniques of storing transplant organs.

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These insects have to be tough to survive out on the ice

These dragons are also strangely lacking empodia, the little claws or bristles which can usually be found on the ends of the legs of insects. This quirk may be a nifty evolutionary tactic, designed to reduce exposure to the harsh elements, and to allow the dragons to conserve precious body heat.

Hidden dragon...

Their existence was first reported in 1956, when the French explorer Aubert Willink observed the bugs on the Upsala Glacier, in the Santa Cruz Province of Argentina. They were then erroneously believed to be extinct, most likely due to their rarity and the difficulty of accessing their frankly rather unwelcoming home turf. But in 2001, a French film crew producing a documentary unwittingly re-entered the dragon’s den. A diver plunging into a 50 metre-deep glacial fissure in the Torres del Paine National Park spotted these insects, proving them to be true born survivors. It was this crew which dubbed our small but plucky insect the Patagonian dragon. You can catch a video of French divers capturing this elusive creepy-crawly here.

Upsala Glacier
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The Upsala Glacier and its hidden dragons

Fancy paying the Patagonian dragon a visit in its icy lair? Get talking to our travel experts now!