It might look like a llama, but the guanaco is a different species of camelid native to South America. It’s likely that the domesticated llamas and alpacas we see today were bred from wild guanacos, centuries ago. They range all the way from the sea level up to the snow line throughout Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. They live in the mountains, steppes, scrublands and deserts, and fortunately they are thriving in the wild, and are currently listed as least concern by the IUCN, although they were once extensively hunted for their fur. Although they are not directly threatened, many populations inhabit the Patagonian steppes, which are poorly protected from increasing human foot prints, and there is an urgent need to develop sustainability and conservation plans for this region.
Living the high life: the specialised adaptations of the Guanaco
This camelid species is often found at very high altitudes, up to 4000 metres above sea level. Living at these dizzying altitudes means low oxygen environments. For us as humans, the levels of haemoglobin, the red pigment that binds and carries oxygen around the body, are too low for comfortable survival at low oxygen conditions, which is why many climbers who scale peaks like Mount Everest often require oxygen tanks once they near the top. In the guanaco however, a single teaspoon of blood contains about 68 million red blood cells, four times that of human blood. This increased number of red blood cells binds as much oxygen as possible when there is so little to go around, ensuring the guanaco has enough oxygen to power their high-flying lifestyle.
It can also get pretty cold at the top, and guanaco pelts are double coated with coarse guard hairs and a soft undercoat to help keep them warm. This double layer gives guanaco pelts the feeling of cashmere, and their wool is prized as second only to vicuna wool. They also have incredibly tough necks, designed to protect them from predator attacks. In addition to their fur, the skin of their necks is used by Bolivians to produce shoes which can survive a hard lifestyle on the steppes.
Some of their higher altitude locations can be pretty scarce for a nutritious meal. Guanacos are herbivores and they eat grasses, lichens, shrubs, succulents and cacti, and their three chambered stomachs enable them to extract the maximum amount of nutrients from this diet. Some guanacos live in incredibly harsh environments like the Atacama Desert, where there can be a complete absence of rain for as long as 50 years. Luckily, guanacos can live without water for long periods of time and obtain what little water they need from cacti and lichens, which absorb water from fog. They also have eyelashes most mascara commercials would die for, which are adapted to protect their eyes from dust and high winds.
Gonzalez, B.A. Palma, R.E. Zapata, B. and Marin, J.C. (2006) ‘Taxonomic and biogeographical status of guanaco.’ Mammal Review
Puig, S. Videla, F. Monge, S. and Roig, V. (1996) ‘Seasonal variations in guanaco diet and food availability in Northern Patagonia, Argentina.’ Journal of Arid Environments.
MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08