Big cats—lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and our very own puma—tend to steal our hearts, but members of the wild dog family often play equally important roles as predators. Here at the future Patagonia National Park, we often catch glimpses of the second-largest canid in South America, known as the Culpeo or Andean Fox. Although typically difficult to see due to their nocturnal habits and rustic brown and grey fur, these wild canids do make frequent appearances around the park.
The Culpeo Fox is native to the western side of South America, from Ecuador to Peru to the southern regions of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. They are not found on any other continent. The foxes’ ideal terrain lies on the western slopes of the Andes, where they can inhabit both open country and deciduous forests. The dense forests are ideal for resting and taking cover, while the open country is optimal for hunting. At the Northern end of their range, where the climate is humid and warm, the Culpeo Foxes are smaller — about the size of a beagle. However, in and around the park, the foxes are larger in size, a good adaption to deal with harsher climate and competitors like the Puma. Pumas are, in fact, the foxes’ main natural predator.
Culpeo Foxes prefer to roam alone, but come end of summer, these foxes start howling for mates. Once they breed, the mated pairs stay together for about five months. First they find a den, which is usually a rocky cave, and hunt for food to hide near the den. The gestation period usually lasts about two months and after the pups are born, the two parents guard the den fearlessly, chasing away any-sized intruder. When the youngsters reach about two months old, they are strong enough to follow their parents and learn to hunt. Although, by the end of December, the close-knit family splits up, each member going their own way.
Andean foxes are opportunistic predators, which means they will eat almost anything that crosses their path while they hunt for optimum prey. They mostly feed on native fruits such as calfate and chaura berries and mammal prey such as rodents, European hares, domestic livestock, armadillos, juvenile guanacos and huemul fawns. Because the majority of domestic livestock was taken out of Valle Chacabuco, the foxes’ food pot has decreased significantly, turning their focus to young guanacos and huemul. Because of this, Conservacion Patagonica’s wildlife research team plans to begin a project examining the Culpeo Foxes’ new diet and impact on huemul fawn survival. This type of information will be vital for the future health of the Park and for other large-scale restoration projects alike.
In 1915, the European Hare was introduced to Chile, causing unknown effects on native biodiversity. Luckily, Culpeo Foxes and other carnivores became significant predators of the hares and helped control their population growth, helping bring the ecosystems back to balance. This also led culpeos to spread from the Andean foothills across the Patagonian plain and into the land that is now the future Patagonia National Park.
Culpeo Foxes face a danger similar to the dangers their fellow Canidae family members face: human interference. Culpeo foxes tend to feed on young livestock, which, in turn, infuriates livestock owners. Instead of properly securing their herds or implementing a livestock guardian dog program, most ranch owners deal with this natural predator/prey relationship by ridding of the predator. This type of interaction has led to dwindling numbers in the canine family and numerous extinctions. We hope the open, wild lands of the future Patagonia National Park will provide the Culpeo Foxes with the freedom they deserve.