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I soon pondered these issues on a different continent thanks to another Ph.D. stu-
dent, whom I coadvised with Rob Colwell. Fabián Jaksic's data from Chile yielded sur-
prising insights when analyzed with Fitch's Sierra Nevada findings and research on oth-
er “Mediterranean-type” ecosystems. We showed that only diet items identified more
precisely than “beetle” or “rodent” portrayed whether predators truly ate the same
prey—important because competition only occurs when species rely on the same scarce
resources. 10 Moreover, ecologists typically investigated “feeding guilds” of, say, hawks
and owls or mammalian carnivores, but three Chilean raptors overlapped in diet with a
fox more than with other birds—so guilds would be better defined by specific prey than
by predator taxonomy. Most intriguingly, reptiles at Fabián's study sites included only
two snakes, a handful of small iguana kin called tropidurines, and a stout-bodied relat-
ive of North American whiptails, yet for so few species they were diverse in diet and
habitat. 11
Having experienced Pisgah's riches firsthand, I was keen to see simpler arid South
American ecosystems. I also was fascinated by carnivory from reading about Komodo
monitors and other Old World varanids, as well as from watching long-nosed leopard liz-
ards consume other species half their size, and I knew the Chilean whiptail's only close
relative to be the yard-long monitor tegu of Peru—where locals rounded up a smaller
seed-eating Sechura Desert whiptail with portable corrals and roasted them for fiestas,
complaining that monitor tegus ate the herbivorous species. 12 In short order I examined
stomachs of the few museum specimens, finding arthropods, lizards, and a parrot's foot,
perhaps taken as carrion. Monitor tegus, though kin to our whiptails and racerunners,
looked like Old World varanids, so in the fall of 1980 undergrad Angus Wynn and I spent
a month in Peru studying this giant lizard, followed by two weeks in Chile with Fabián.
Despite minor fiascos and near-catastrophes, our trip was worthwhile—the more so
as an escape from the strain of my second divorce soon after moving to Berkeley. While
our requests for collecting permits were being processed in Lima, Angus and I took a
train ride to Machu Picchu, its ruins so impressive I vowed to someday walk the Inca
Trail and view them from above. Caught up in Pablo Neruda's poetry and Gabriel García
Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, 13 I daydreamed of dying by plane crash or
firing squad. Then a few nights later, finally under way, our jet shuddered during takeoff;
minutes later Angus pointed out at an engine spewing flames, whereupon the old man
next to me gravely crossed himself and said, “Señor, la máquina está mala.” I stared into
darkness as the plane banked a steep descending turn, recalled hugging my parents,
and wondered if I might actually see the fireball. Instead, we returned to Lima without
incident, were herded onto another plane without explanation, and reached the north-
ern town of Chiclayo after a dreamily smooth flight, over moonlit clouds that looked to
me like perfectly spaced, snow-white acacias.
That evening we paid too much for a cab to the car rental agency, thanks to my
rattled psyche and clumsy Spanish (Angus hadn't even learned enough to read traffic
signs). The next morning we found our trunk popped and much of our field gear stolen.
After breakfast we headed north anyway, into an alien landscape. Sandwiched between
mountains and ocean, one of Earth's driest places because of the offshore Humboldt
Current, the Sechura Desert dominates northwestern Peru. Chiclayo, on its southern
edge, and Piura, at its center, though sizable cities, are surrounded by glaring bar-
ren flats or sandy plains populated by terrestrial bromeliads and mesquite, occasionally
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