Species: L. guanicoe
Range: Native to South America. Found north of Peru to southern Chile, including Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Tierra del Fuego and Navarino Island.
Population: Around 400,000-600,000 with 90% found in Argentine Patagonia
IUCN Red List Status: Least concern: population stable
How to Spot Them: Long, slender neck and legs; double-layered coat ranges from light to dark reddish-brown with white underside; long, pointed ears; split upper lip and two padded toes per foot. Can reach up to 7 feet long, 3.5 feet high at the shoulder, and 200-310 lbs.
As synonymous with Patagonia as the jagged peaks of Torres del Paine, guanacos can be found roaming the terrain’s wild, windswept steppes, grazing on grassy patches, and bolting across the slopes in herds of up to 50. Their name [pronounced gwuh-NAA-ko] comes from the Quechua word huanaco, meaning a wild animal or an animal that runs fast, which is perfectly fitting: adult guanacos can run up to 35 miles per hour. And that need for speed kicks in quickly—baby guanacos are walking five minutes after birth and on the run shortly after.
On first glance it can be hard to differentiate guanacos from their other camelid cousins—llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. These four South American species share many similar traits. But one big difference is that guanacos and vicuñas still roam the wild, while alpacas and llamas have been domesticated as pack animals for thousands of years.
Being one with the wild has given guanacos some exceptional abilities. Besides being quick-footed and surprisingly good swimmers, they’re incredibly adaptable. These hearty herbivores can thrive in a wide range of habitats—withstanding arid desert climes, sub-zero temperatures, snowfall, rain, high winds, and elevations from sea level to over 2 miles.
Surviving in environments with such low oxygen levels is no joke, but their bodies are designed for just that. Guanaco’s hearts are 15% larger than most mammals their size and a teaspoon of their blood contains 67 million red blood cells—about four times as much as humans. They can go without water too: they get all their moisture from the grasses, lichens, and succulents they scoop up with their split upper lips.
Learn more about this very adept adapter.
Want to detect a guanaco’s mood? Look closely to spot these telling signs: Ears up, tail down means relaxed; ears forward, tail straight shows alarm and alertness; flat ears, upward pointing tail signals aggression. They greet one another by touching noses and will slouch down in submission.
Baby guanacos are adorably known as chulengos, and in herds, they’re often born en masse. To decrease the chance of pumas (their main predators) reducing their numbers, females in a herd all give birth around the same time to mewling, wispy-furred newborns who are up and trotting within minutes.
Sound the Alarm
Guanacos are known to laugh in the face of danger. Herds have designated sentries who keep watch on hilltops. When danger is near, they raise the alarm—a bleat-like warning call that sounds like a short, sharp laugh. Another odd defensive mechanism? Spitting up to 6 feet to exert dominance or startle a predator long enough to flee.
Besides being sturdy armor against harsh climes, guanaco fur is highly valued since it makes lush, warm wool comparable to quality cashmere. Once hunted in great numbers for their luxurious undercoats, guanaco populations are resurging in protected areas, thanks to humane hunting and fiber harvesting practices.
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