Have you ever wondered about guanaco guano, pudu doodoo, puma prints or huemul hooves? If not, then you could be missing out!
While you’re likely to see plenty of wildlife in Patagonia whether you want to or not, some creatures are more elusive than others. To be in with a chance of crossing paths with these animals you’ll have to stay alert while you hike and learn to read the signs they leave behind, to piece together an exciting insight into their behaviour or spot an animal you might otherwise have missed.
This guide highlights some common signs to look out for on your way, so you can track while you trek!
The pudu is the world’s smallest deer, standing just 44cm high at most. They live throughout southern Chile, preferring the lower slopes of the Andes. Not only are they small and incredibly timid animals - running away is more or less their only defense from predators - they are also endangered, making them very difficult to spot. However, there are some things you can look out for on your trek to track down these endearing deer. Like most deer tracks, the pudu’s prints are heart-shaped as a result of their cloven hooves, which are actually its two front toes. The main indicator that you’re looking at a pudu print not another kind of deer print is their tiny size. Pudu prints about the same size as the old-style Chilean 100 peso coin, measuring just 27mm across. Look for small areas of flattened grass or disturbed dew where a pudu has been lying, remembering of course that they’re only about 85 cm long when fully grown. Grass that is cropped short with a jagged edge could be another sign of pudu activity since they take grass between their teeth and pull until it snaps rather than chewing it off. Females also peel back the bark from short saplings, so any signs of bark stripping you see below a metre in height could well have been left by a pudu.
The puma is the undisputed top Patagonia predator and one of the animals visitors most want to see stalking the dense underbrush in search of prey. Unfortunately, they are also endangered and rare in the wild, so your chances of spotting one during your trek in Patagonia can be quite slim. However, they are hefty animals with large paws so with a bit of luck and if you keep your eyes open, it is possible to find excellent puma tracks. As you might expect, the puma print resembles a scaled-up version of the domestic cat’s track and as it is the only big cat in the Patagonia area there’s no danger of confusing it with any other species. Aside from tracks, the most obvious evidence of a puma passing through is their scat (or droppings!), which tends to be tubular or teardrop shaped, more or less what you’d find in your domestic cat’s litter tray, just much bigger! It’s probably unwise to go poking around without gloves, but you may see small bones along with feathers and hair of the puma’s prey amongst its droppings. If you keep your eyes trained on low-lying bushes, you might even see tufts of tawny or golden puma fur caught in the branches as the puma passed by. If you do spot signs of a puma we wouldn’t recommend trying to catch up with it, although they don’t generally attack humans. Instead, bask in the privilege of walking in the footsteps of this magnificent hunter.
The llama-like guanaco is one of South America’s largest mammals and is found throughout the continent including in large numbers in Patagonia. You’ll have a good chance of meeting a guanaco in the flesh whilst you’re trekking in Patagonia, so here are some tips to help you figure out when they’re nearby and when you’re on their trail, if you don’t happen to see them first. Like other camelids, guanacos walk on foot pads rather than hooves, so even though they have cleft toes you should be able to distinguish their tracks easily from any hoofed animals such as deer. Their prints appear as two soft teardrop shapes placed close together, but as their feet are padded they may not appear as sharply defined as pudu or huemul prints. Guanaco also have the curious habit of marking the boundaries of their territory with scat, which appears as piles of small, dark pellets. Any tufts of fur you come across that tend more towards a cinnamon colour are likely to be guanaco fur rather than the paler, golden fur of the puma.
The huemul or South Andean Deer is another of Patagonia’s endangered native species, found on the mountainsides and cool valleys of the Andes. As it now only exists in small, isolated populations you’ll have to keep a sharp lookout for signs of this elegant animal to be in with a chance of seeing it. Like the diminutive pudu, huemul’s have a cloven hoof that leaves heart-shaped tracks on the ground, although obviously the huemul’s hooves - and therefore tracks - are much larger. Huemuls also have fairly prominent dew-claws, which are like two extra toes growing further up the deer’s leg, a leftover from evolution that rarely touch the ground. However in particularly soft terrain or when the deer has been jumping you might find an imprint of these two smaller toes just behind the main hoofprint. Large patches of flattened grass might suggest a huemul ‘lay’, an area where they have been resting. It’s also worth paying attention to areas of rubbed tree bark where male huemuls may have scraped the velvet from their antlers. And if you should happen to spot a huemul in the wild, stay quiet, sit tight and enjoy a rare wonder that few are lucky enough to see.
We hope this helps you make the most of your Patagonia hike! One final tip, although we’ve provided some pointers on the sort of thing you might see whilst out and about trekking in Patagonia, it’s always best not to set out with the idea of one particular animal in mind. If you’re focussing on looking for just one kind of track you might close your mind to other possibilities and miss something equally interesting that you never expected to see. Keep an open mind and open eyes and you’re sure to see something you’d never find back home!
If you want to know more about animals, birds and fish in Patagonia, check out our full range of Wildlife Guides. And if you want to see Patagonia’s incredible wildlife for yourself? We recommend a Patagonia Wildlife Safari with one of our expert local guides who know exactly what to look out for!