Our part of Patagonia remains a frontier in many ways: roads only arrived a few decades ago, inter and even some of the most recognizable species have received little scientific attention. The Mountain Vizcacha is no exception. Part of the Chinchilla family, they look much like rabbits with their large ears, strong hind legs and small front paws, and quite unlike rabbits with their long bushy tails. They live in colonies in rock outcroppings, and emerge to sun themselves and nap on warm days. National wildlife authorities see gathering more information on behavior, population size and movements as key to the long-term survival of this threatened species.
Round River Conservation Studies established a college semester program at the future Patagonia National Park in which field ecologists-in-training provide critical on-the-ground support for research projects. Last year, Cristian Saucedo, CP’s Conservation Director, asked Round River to design and implement a vizcacha study to begin answering the many mysteries around this species.
Guillermo Sapaj joined the Round River program after spending part of last year in CP’s volunteer program. Vizcacha research fascinates him: he plans to return to the park next year to complete thesis research on this species. Below is his account of his time in the Chacabuco Valley (reposted from the Round River student blog):
As a Chilean international student in a North American college, I have learnt a lot about large-scale conservation efforts around the world, but none coming from my own country. So when I heard about Conservacion Patagonica’s work in the Chacabuco Valley of the Aysen District, I got really interested by it and I applied to their volunteer program, so that I could learn more and get to help build the future Patagonia National Park. Moreover, as a wildlife lover, I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know the different species of this beautiful area. Thus, I came down to volunteer during January 2012 and had an amazing time. Every week we rotated among different tasks, such as old fence removal, exotic species eradication and seed collection of the native bunch grass, Coiron, used to reseed overgrazed areas of the valley’s grasslands. I made really good friends with the others volunteers and with the locals, and also I got to see diverse areas of the park. During that month, I had the chance to see three endangered Huemul deer, an armadillo, a couple of foxes, a Magellanic horned owl, and multiple Andean condors. But because I only stayed for one month, I couldn’t expand my list of animals seen. I had to leave the valley without encountering one of my favorite animals: the rock-specialist Vizcacha.
More than a year has passed since then, and the river of life has brought me back to the Chacabuco Valley, this time as a Round River student. During our first days in Coyhaique, our leaders told us that we were going to be conducting Vizcacha surveys and this obviously made me so happy because I had always wanted to learn more about this animal. The only time that I had seen a Vizcacha was north in the Atacama Desert during a rock climbing trip. All I knew about them was that they live in cliffy areas and like basking. Now, I know that the Vizcacha that live in the Chacabuco Valley are a different species of rodent than the one that I saw up north, although they are very similar and belong to the same genus, Lagidium. Being in the field with these animals, I have become a witness of their naturally excellent climbing abilities and their love for the sun, and I feel inspired by them every time I see them.
We did our first survey on March 4th, and since then we have performed a total of 6 successful surveys at different locations throughout the valley. In one of these we only found the typical Vizcacha signs (i.e. scat and potential dens). But in the other surveys, we have been able to see Vizcachas, with some of them being just a few meters apart. The number of individuals seen range from one to sixteen, but since these rodents live in groups within larger colonies, it’s likely that the places where we have only seen one or two individuals are occupied by a much larger group of Vizcachas.
It has been really exciting to be part of this fieldwork. I have learnt so much about these animals just from observing them and their habitats. As a gift from nature, I had the chance to see a juvenile Vizcacha standing close to one of his parents right outside their den. I took a picture of that moment which I’m sharing here with you. It has been great to look for these amazing animals and spend some time with them in the field. As a volunteer I always wanted to see a Vizcacha, and now as it turns out, thanks to Round River, I have not only seen one, but also learnt a lot about these animals.