Guanaco

A lone guanaco. These animals are usually found in herds. Image taken in central Chile.

I spotted this guanaco all by itself while on the road somewhere between La Serena and Valparaiso, Chile and I jumped out to get this shot. I knew it was a guanaco, but didn’t know much about them then except that they and the vicuña are wild camelids (the family containing camels, alpaca, llamas etc.) and that guanacos were the wild ancestor to our domestic llamas (domesticated ~6,000-7,000 yrs ago).

Later I learned that this is probably a male. It’s not very common to see solitary guanacos, but when males are about 5 years old, they will often split off to find and battle for a territory to have their own herd of females, so that’s probably what this guy was doing. Usually there are herds of females and young (called chulengos) together with one dominant male and more interesting, leaderless herds consisting of young males that are not yet ready to attract females and reproduce. While they don’t start out to lead herds of their own until they are about 5 years old, they are ejected from their birth herd by the dominant male at about 1 year old, so the young males all band together. What I thought was cool is that these herds of young guanaco also include old and injured males, so they still have the protection of being in a herd. These all male herds can have up to 200 animals in them. If one member of the herd detects danger, say a puma, it will screech out a very high pitched warning call. And once a potential predator has been spotted, these animals are great at getting away. They have padded feet as opposed to hooves, so they can run fast even on gravel or other rough, rocky terrain. By fast I mean they can run up to 40 miles per hour. They are also strong swimmers. Still, the young are especially vulnerable, even though they can stand 5 minutes after they’re born and follow their mother immediately.

But this guanaco didn’t have the protection of a herd. He was on his own. If he did come upon a territory he was going to battle for, he and the dominant male would try to bite each others legs, which usually ends up in them twisting their necks around each other. Despite the violent nature of these battles, it actually seems comical to me because they look absolutely ridiculous and even do a funny war dance.They will also try to push each other to their knees and they will spit. And their spit is actually juices regurgitated from their stomach. Not just saliva, but actually partially digested food.  That can be aimed and shot up to 6 feet. They do this when they are agitated. So, yeah, um…don’t piss off a guanaco.

How do you know if you’ve pissed off a guanaco you ask?

Well, from what I’ve read, guanaco actually have some pretty standard body signals that will let you know what’s going on. It’s all in the ears and the tail. Here is a list for your convenience:

Tail:

Down=normal

Up=aggression

Straight out or slightly raised=alarmed

Wagging, while nose to nose with another guanaco=greeting

Ears:

Straight up=normal

Forward=alarmed

Straight back=aggression

So now here’s your test. Did I piss off this guanaco?

Guanco

The guanaco starts to wander off. Image taken in central Chile.

Hmmm. That’s a tricky one. What about here?

Guanaco

A guanaco giving mixed signals. Image taken in central Chile.

Hmmm. Okay, last one. What about here?

Guanaco

The same guanaco, showing 3 different body signals. Image taken in central Chile.

Huh. I guess this guy just didn’t know how to feel about me. He was sort of alert and sort of didn’t care? And sort of showing aggression?

Anyway, when you look at all of these pictures, do you notice the vegetation around him? These herbivores have some pretty tough plants to chew through. But none the worry, these guys have a 3 chambered stomach that helps them to thoroughly digest these plants and get every last bit of nutrition they need from it. (BUT, they are not true ruminants. No, they only have a psuedo-rumen and are not true ruminants, but “functional” ruminants. You gotta love scientists. The difference, if you care to know is 3 vs. 4 stomach chambers. I suppose that is a pretty big difference. This, by the way, is true of all camelids) They also get most of their water from these tough, prickly plants.

So after all of this, you might be wondering how I chose the title of this post. Well, guanaco hearts are ~15% larger than the hearts of other mammals of the same size. They are literally big-hearted animals.

For more information on these interesting creatures, check out the San Diego Zoos library site.

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