Species Profile: Guanaco
(photo by Jonny Miller)
By Cameron Nevin (University of Vermont ’15)
My species presentation is on the Guanaco (Lama guanicoe), the native camelid to most of South America. The guanaco is quite abundant in the Future Patagonia National Park (FPNP), and in the past three weeks I have had much time to study and observe this creature.
The guanaco looks a bit like a llama, but has a longer neck and distinctly cinnamon-colored body with a white underbelly and white neck. The face is usually grayish/tan. The guanacos diet consists mainly of bunchgrass (and I’ve observed it mostly eating grasses) but also includes shrubs, lichens, fungi, and herbs. It’s preferred habitat is hill environments; areas of elevated grassy-covered Patagonian steppe. The herds in the FPNP often graze and hangout in these flat grassy areas, although I’ve seen them high in the mountains as well; also at lake edges in marshy shrubby areas. They have a wide range of habitat and diet, which probably accounts for why there are so many in the protected park.
Before Europeans arrived in South America the estimated population was 30-50 million guanaco in the entire continent. Presently, however, their population is estimated to be around 600,000. The reasons for this decline are human hunting and habitat loss due to fragmentation. Historically, the Inca are known for hunting guanaco and using their meat, hides, and fleece for food and clothing. The guanaco is still hunted for its commercial value. The soft fleece-like wool is a very high quality product and is sold for 50-75 dollars per pound in America. For this reason, guanaco populations survive and thrive in protected areas but suffer population loss in unprotected areas due to human predation. In addition to hunting, guanaco are sometimes killed because they compete for grazing pasture with sheep. Despite human predation, the total population of guanaco is assumed to be healthy.
Guanaco are very entertaining to observe. They have soft features and their ears flop around in a cartoon-like fashion. They are very social creatures. For instance, they use communal spots for defecation. They spend most of their time grazing and sometimes chasing one another around while emitting a guttural squawking noise.
Three social groups are commonly observed: small sedentary harem groups consisting of a few males with multiple females; female groups with juveniles (chulengos); and immature bachelor herds. Male guanacos become sexually mature at 4-6 years of age. Females give birth to a single chulengo once every year or so. Gestation period is 340-360 days and so mating and reproducing usually occur around the same time of the year. A newborn chulengo will remain with the female in the harem for about a year until the dominant male drives it from the herd to join with other immature males. This is perhaps the social behavior being observed when they squawk and chase each other. Young females can remain with the family herd for multiple years, before being selected for as mates.
Oh, and the speed of a guanaco is around 35 mph, probably why I haven’t been able to catch one yet.
The guanaco populations of South America have been studied quite extensively. One study (Sosa & Sarasola 2005) remarked that a strong correlation between guanacos and their habitat preference makes the population vulnerable to events of habitat alterations. This is of course true for many species, but in the case of guanacos, wildfires in protected areas have historically resulted in direct mortality and the movement of entire herds towards unprotected areas resulting in a higher risk of human predation and persecution.
All in all, I love watching these skittish mammals around the park. Their faces look so happy and their fur appears soft to the touch. Perhaps I will catch one and feel this luxury someday. For the first time I’m regretting not bringing running shoes to Patagonia. I wrote a love poem to the guanaco to express my infatuation of the species. I intend to share it with the next one I see. Here it is…
Your lashes bat
And mock my words
You know I’ll never catch you.
Though try I must
For it is lust
That fuels my folly try
Its something bout your lengthy neck
Or tufty fur
Or you gawky cry
Why, of why
Do you bat your eyes
And mingle on hillsides.
Is it for disguise?
I see you, seeing me, seeing you.
I think you care
And wish me to run my fingers through your soft hair.
Will you one day entertain this affair?
When you’re ready I’ll be there.
I must now admit
In front of peers
That my love for you
Is in your ears!
If only you release your fears
I’d massage those floppity ears
Till I swear with joy you’d reach a state of tears.
And then I’d feed you grass.
We’re separate species
You can tell by the look of our feces.
And if one day we were to mate
Lord knows what on earth we’d create!