Animals of the Atacama

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Atacama Desert, Chile
Animals of the Atacama - Viscacha
Animals of the Atacama - Andean Fox
Animals of the Atacama - Vicuña
Animals of the Atacama - Vicuña with baby
Animals of the Atacama - Vicuña
Animals of the Atacama - Vicuña

Animals of the Atacama Atacama Desert Reviews

Toonsarah Toonsarah
534 reviews
Animals of the Atacama Oct 31, 2016
In the area around Laguna Miñiques and Laguna Miscanti we saw a number of vicuñas grazing on the bright yellow tufts of festuca, a species of grass that grows on the higher slopes of the Andes and is their favourite food here in the Atacama. We were to see more, and closer, the next day on our return from the El Tatio geysers, at a similar height above sea level. These higher level brackish lagoons suit them well as they also like to lick rocks and stones with a high salt content and to drink salt water. But you don’t see them in the lower parts, such as around the Salar de Atacama, as they live only at altitudes of 3,200 to 4,800 metres above sea level.

Vicuñas are camelids, related to the llama, alpaca and guanaco. Like the latter, they are wild animals, whereas the llama and alpaca are domesticated. They live mainly in the central Andes and in Chile that means they are found only in the north of the country (we were to see guanaco in the south later in our trip). They are quite shy – I needed a zoom to get these photos and, as you can see, on a couple of them I was stretching the capabilities of the lens a bit too much and the quality suffered – but the young one was too cute not to share! Vicuña wool is exceptionally soft, and therefore much prized, so in some parts of South America (e.g. Peru) the wild animals are caught annually and shorn, but I don’t believe that happens so much (if at all) in Chile – however there have I believe been some attempts to farm them here. In 1974 the vicuña was considered to be at risk of becoming extinct, with only about 6,000 of them left. Thanks to conservation efforts however, their numbers have increased since then, to about 350,000 across South America as a whole, and it is no longer thought to be threatened although laws are still needed to deter poaching for the wool.

In addition to the vicuña just a few other mammals live in the Atacama Desert, and we were lucky enough to see two of them. On the road up to Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti Daniel’s sharp eyes spotted this fox. There are two species of fox that live in this region, the Gray or Patagonian and the Culpeo or Andean, and I believe this is one of the latter – the larger of the two by far (95 to 132 centimetres in length as opposed to 65 to 110).

Neither are considered true foxes but are from the family known as Lycalopex, the South American “false” foxes. The foxes mostly live off small animals (rodents and reptiles) and birds, but sometimes eat carrion or resort to plants if needed. We were lucky to see this one and to have it pose so nicely, if briefly, for our cameras.

The other mammal we saw (albeit the following day) was a viscacha (a relative of the chinchilla) – or more accurately, we saw several, in the grasses beside the road as we drove back to San Pedro after visiting the El Tatio geysers. These are slightly odd-looking rodents, with a front half like that of a rabbit or hare, but with a squirrel-like tail. There are five species of viscacha and I’m guessing that this one is a Southern or Mountain viscacha, as these are most often found in this region (but it could be a Northern!) The viscacha lives in burrows in family units within large colonies. They are most active soon after dawn and in the evening, so returning from an early morning visit to the geysers is a good time to catch them.
Vicuña with baby
1 / 1 TravBuddies found this review helpful/trustworthy
Toonsarah says:
Thanks Holger. Most of them were taken from inside a vehicle so I was pleased they turned out so well really
Posted on: Jan 25, 2017
Great new tip with very nice animal photos. Well done.
Posted on: Jan 25, 2017
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Atacama Desert Map
Atacama Desert
photo by: Toonsarah