Desert mammals of Argentina and Chile

Deserts are not barren places, the wildlife is limited, specialised and just as beautiful as anywhere else in the World. This is about the Desert mammals of Argentina and Chile.

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Deserts are arid lands that have little or no water.

The location of South America between the two great oceans of the world, the 6000km length of the Andes and the direction of the prevailing winds creates the deserts in both Chile and Argentina.


Bones in the Atacama desert, Chile.

In Chile the desert is called the Atacama.  This is a true desert, 600 miles long where very little, or no water, has fallen for 100 years or more.



In Argentina the desert is very different.  In the north of the country and spreading down the middle is an area of arid lands, known as the Monte desert.



Whereas further south are the arid lands of the windswept plains of Patagonia.

The mammals to be found in these deserts are unique to South America, most are rodents, but then half of all the mammal species found in the whole of South America are rodents.

They are very difficult to identify, scientists usually have to catch them in order to do so.

We are wildlife photographers and getting shots like these is a delight.


Commonly called tuco-tucos, these rodents are members of the family Octodontidae, although they are sometimes classified in their own family – Ctenomyidae

The ‘Living Wild in South America’ expeditions have camped in all of these deserts and seen many different looking ‘guinea-pig like’ mammals.

The most common is the Tuco-tuco, which is a type of gopher.  Like gophers in North America they burrow underground and their tell-tale mounds of earth are to be seen commonly.


Mountain Viscacha, Susques, Argentina.

Another is the Mountain Viscacha, as big as a medium sized dog. They are difficult to find as they remain motionless, hidden among boulders and rocks, at the last moment they will emit a sharp whistle and bound over the rocks as effortlessly as a gymnast. They seem to almost fly through the air using their long tails to keep balance.  They look like big rabbits but they are really rodents.

The large mammals are dominated by two Camelids, the Guanaco and the Vicuna.



The Guanaco was domesticated by a number of indigenous peoples over thousands of years, the domesticated animal is called the Llama and was used as the beast of burden, transporting goods back and forth over the Andes.

To cope with the harsh and variable climates they encounter throughout their broad distribution, guanacos have developed physiological adaptations that allow them to respond quickly to changes in environmental conditions.  By adjusting their body position, for example, individuals can “open” or “close” thermal windows—areas of very thin wool located in their front and rear flanks—in order to vary the amount of exposed skin available for heat exchange with the environment.


Vicuna in snow,May, Laguna Blanca,Argentina.

On the other hand the Vicuna is a small, slender, elegant animal of little use to carry goods. However the wool of the Vicuna is so fine, light and waterproof that it is highly valued by local people and goes to make woollens sought after by the world’s rich and famous.

Wildlife lovers and wildlife photographers should visit these amazing deserts, and if you want a good read on deserts, the best book I’ve read is ‘A Desert Calling’ by Michael Mares.




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