In the dependable words of Charles Darwin, Patagonia’s favourite camelid can be summarised as, “an elegant animal, with a long, slender neck and fine legs”. But we think there is so much more behind those beautifully soulful, long-lashed eyes than that bare, if rather flattering, description! Take a trip down south in Chile and the sight of many a graceful, grazing guanaco awaits on the horizon...
You can also spot guanacos in southern Peru, western Bolivia, Tierra del Fuego, Navarino Island, and some even found their way to the Falkland Islands, where they were introduced from Argentina in the 1930s. A pale fawn colour, with a snowy white underside, guanacos have adapted to all sorts of extreme, sometimes harsh, conditions. From the intensely arid environment of the Atacama Desert, to the often rainy and wind-buffeted Torres del Paine National Park, guanacos are masters of survival.
1. Guanacos Like to Socialise
Guanacos are garrulous folk, living in herds usually composed of up to ten females, their young, and one dominant male. Baby guanacos are adorably known as chulengos, and the little four-legged ones can walk competently only five minutes after birth. Female guanacos have a lengthy eleven-and-a-half month gestation period, after which a single chulengo is born between the South American summer months of December and March. The apron strings are cut abruptly for male chulengos, who are chased away from the herd after one year spent with their mother. Following a brief period of bachelorhood, however, they eventually form their own herds. It is a tough world out there for a chulengo, and only 30% of the babies live to adulthood, due to various factors including disease and harsh weather conditions.
Gamboling guanacos just want to have fun.
2. They Have Some Famous Relatives
Guanacos are related to camels (though they lack the distinctive hump!), as well as to vicuñas, alpacas, and llamas. These last two are domesticated South American camelids, and the guanaco is believed to be the ancestor of the llama. Owing to their calm, docile nature, it was easy for humans to tame and train the wild guanacos, who eventually became the llamas we know and love today.
He's got Grandpa Guanaco's eyes...
3. They Laugh in the Face of Danger
Guanacos have one natural predator: the puma. When threatened, they alert the rest of the herd to the imminent danger with a high-pitched bleating sound, which some say sounds similar to a short, sharp laugh. Although habitually mild-mannered, if forced into a corner, guanacos can also spit up to a distance of six feet. Though once widely hunted for their soft, thick, woolly coat, they are now protected against hunting, although sadly it continues illegally nevertheless. In the past, the Tehuelches, a nomadic, pre-colonial tribe in the Patagonia area, depended on guanaco meat and wool. There used to be a vast number of huge guanaco herds thundering across the Patagonian plains, but now, due to hunting and habitat destruction, a mere 5% of previous populations remain. When the Europeans arrived on the continent, there is thought to have been up to 50 million resident guanacos. The recent decline in numbers is thought to be down to the introduction of domestic sheep, who monopolise the best grazing lands, and become the guanaco’s competition for food.
It's a puma-eat-guanaco world...
4. They are Well-adapted to Their Environment
Guanacos have developed some smart adaptations to make their lives just that little bit easier. Their necks have thicker skin for protection against predators, whilst their soft and sensitive lips help them to rootle amongst thorny undergrowth and identify tasty tidbits. They also have a nifty, split upper lip which helps them guide food into their mouths. Like camels, guanacos can retain and store moisture from plants, enabling them to survive even harsh and dry climates. What’s more, guanacos are ruminants with a three chamber stomach. The food goes through the first stomach, only to be regurgitated and swallowed again, meaning that they can extract all the essential nutrients possible out of whatever they are munching. Two padded toes on each foot help the guanaco to navigate gravelly paths and slopes, and thick, long eyelashes not only keep a guanaco gorgeous, but also protect their eyes from the dust kicked up by fellow guanacos and swept through the air by the high winds of the Patagonian steppe.
The ever-practical guanaco has even adapted for efficient eating.
5. They Have Big Hearts
Guanacos have been found living up to 4,000 metres above sea level. In order to survive at such a low oxygen level, guanaco blood has four times the number of red blood cells that we humans have! One teaspoon contains roughly 68 million red blood cells. Guanaco’s are big-hearted in more than just their gentle temperament too - their hearts are 15% larger than those of the average mammal their size.
Guanacos running happy and free.
And, finally, guanacos know how a good photo bomb opportunity when they see it...
A glamorous guanaco tries to steal the show from Chilean actress Paz Bascuñan at EcoCamp Patagonia...
Find out more about your Patagonian neighbours here.