Studying Vizcachas: An Interview With Guillermo Sapaj

Photo: Guillermo Sapaj

Photo: Guillermo Sapaj

Q.  How, when, and why did you first come to the future Patagonia National Park?

A.  I first came to the future Patagonia NP in January of 2012 as a volunteer. When I heard about the volunteer program, I thought it would be a really nice opportunity to spend time in this beautiful place, to get to know its people, landscapes and animals. Also, I’m passionate about wildlife conservation and coming to the future park was a great learning experience. I really, really enjoyed it.

Q.  What made you particularly interested in studying vizcachas?

A.  I loved how they can climb vertical rock faces and jump so easily from rock to rock. They are really not what they seem. Most times when you see a vizcacha, you will see it perched at a cliff ledge or on top of a big rock, sunbathing or just taking a rest. But when they move they do it with extraordinary agility. Vizcachas can only be found in rocky outcrops and cliffs, and I feel drawn to these habitat types too. So I thought that studying them would be a very fun and rewarding experience.

Also, I was interested to know more about them because they haven’t been studied much in the past. During the bibliographic review stage of my research, I could only find one article about this species (Lagidium wolffsohni) from back in the day (1907), and it was just a physical description. So I was just curious to know more about them.

Q.  Can you describe a vizcacha, for those who have never seen one?

A.  They look like big rabbits with a fox tail. In fact, I’ve heard some people calling them “zorrejos” in northern Chile, i.e. zorro + conejo, fox + rabbit. They are not related to rabbits at all, though, nor to foxes. They are large rodents. They are in the same family as Chinchillas from northern Chile and plains vizcachas from the Argentinian pampas. Ecologically, they fulfill similar roles as pikas from North America, Europe and Asia, and as rock hyraxes or dassies from Africa and the Middle East. They are mainly diurnal and inhabit rock habitats with good-quality crevices where they can establish their dens. They form colonies, they are very social, and give birth to one offspring.

Photo: Guillermo Sapaj

Photo: Guillermo Sapaj

Q.  And what’s “a day in the life of a vizcacha” like, as far as you know?

A.  Vizcachas are 100% vegetarian, and when they are not foraging, you can find them resting near their crevices. Based on my observations— yes, they really like to nap. Sometimes they would just sleep 10 or 15 minutes straight—immobile under the sun rays—and seem to be very heavy sleepers. I’ve wondered how they manage to be so chilled in a place where predators are out looking for vizcacha-like animals to eat. But as it turns out, the vizcacha habitat is a difficult terrain for foxes and other predators. So we believe that only the smaller wild cats and eagles are able to hunt vizcachas since their predatory strategies could potentially be successful at cliffs or boulder fields.  In any case, as they bask outside in groups, when vizcachas sense danger they produce a bird-like whistle to warn the rest of the colony.

How far they move from their homes remains a mystery. Some studies on another vizcacha species from northern Patagonia in Argentina suggest that they don’t like to get too far away from their rocky outcrops. This is exactly what we observed at the park. After two or three weeks of looking at the same colony and recording their activity with camera traps, I noticed that, at least during this time of the year, they spend a lot of their time in very close proximity to their dens. Perhaps there are male dispersers that can move more, but every time I visited a habitat patch I would see the same vizcachas with their offspring in almost the same spots.

With the camera traps we also captured significant night activity. So the old saying that vizcachas are only diurnal is not true. We believe that the main reason that they move at night is to forage, but they could also use this part of the day to disperse to neighboring habitat patches.

Guillermo Sapaj

Photo: Guillermo Sapaj

Q.  What did you learn last season, when you studied vizcacha with Round River?

A.  A lot. When I was a Round River student in 2013, we started going to look at vizcachas in the entire Chacabuco valley. We only knew a few places where they had been seen, so choosing new places to survey was up to our own judgment. After some time studying vizcachas, you can kind of sense whether there are vizcachas in one habitat patch or another just by eye—by just observing if the rock can contain good crevices and has some good sun exposure. So we started surveying areas that go from the very western entrance to the Chacabuco Valley to the Lago Chico area and beyond to the Argentinian border. We found that vizcachas are distributed in an East-West topographic gradient that runs technically all across the Chacabuco valley. I also learnt a lot about the vizcacha ecology and behavior, since we had the chance to spend a lot of our time in the field observing them.

Q.  How did you determine what you wanted to study during this project? What is known thus far, and what is still unknown, about this species of vizcacha?

A.  I took into account many factors when deciding what to study about them. I wanted to do something that was, first of all, affordable and not invasive on the animals and ecosystems. For example, there is one early study on Northern mountain vizcachas (Lagidium peruanum) where this guy ends up killing hundreds of specimens just to open them up and take his measures. I mean, wait, what’s the logic there? If you want to learn more about the animal, I think that you also need to be conscious about its importance in its natural environments and its networks with the ecosystem— its intrinsic value.

I also considered a functional or more instrumental aspect

All these aspects combined pretty nicely into my research which continued upon what I had learned with Round River. I received a lot of help from wildlife managers Cristián and Paula, and following their advice I decided that my study should aim at topics of distribution, abundance and activity. So last September, I started a literature review gathering all relevant information, and I started to get into the GIS world. I generated a map of habitat suitability for the species in the valley considering three variables of their ecology. I then found out that I felt very comfortable with maps and the concepts of place and direction, so I came to the valley with the idea of mapping the distribution of vizcacha colonies to raise questions of connectivity and dispersal.

Q.  How did you conduct your field research? Did your methods change as your project evolved?

A.  Yes, definitely—my project evolved a lot. In fact, when I first started studying vizcachas, I never thought about the study goals. Having clearly defined, fixed goals would be something that I was going to definitely need in the future, but when I started, I just tried to not think too much about the goals and focus on the process and the aspects that I mentioned earlier. That’s why in August 2013, after my semester with Round River, I visited a rodent expert (Juan Carlos) in Santiago to talk about my study and its potential directions. I always knew though that I wanted to know more about vizcachas and get closer to them and to Patagonia.

So I kept in contact with Paula and Cristián and I would update them on how my project was evolving. Without really realizing, I started to arrive at very interesting questions that I wanted to keep exploring. That’s how we finally arrived at what my field campaign was all about in January, when we mapped the distribution of vizcachas in the Western end of the Chacabuco valley and set the base for a revision of how different colonies interact with each other from the habitat or place-based perspective. Also we worked with camera traps to monitor two neighboring vizcacha colonies for the month hoping to know more about their activity and daily life movements. I conducted the field research with my brother, Martín, who has a more experience on navigation and mountain safety. Sometimes we had to climb semi-vertical walls to get to our targets or hike up steep scree slopes. It was fun!

Q.  What were your basic findings?

A.  I found that vizcachas occupy habitats that can be sometimes “islands” of suitable habitat surrounded by seas of unsuitable forests, grasslands or wetlands. That’s why the quality of each habitat patch is so important to determine the abundance of vizcachas living in it, especially the size of the patch and the amount of “high-quality” crevices. We found for this area that vizcachas are mainly distributed in ridgelines (cordones) that come down from the Cerro Tamango and penetrate deep into the Chacabuco Valley almost as far as the Chacabuco River to the North. Some of these ridgelines are separated by only 300-400 mts, which raises the question if vizcachas, apart from moving along a ridgline, can disperse perpendicularly across unsuitable habitat.

Also we found that vizcachas move a lot during the night, and captured them foraging with night videos not too far away from their dens. Also at least for this part of the year which is hotter, we found that vizcachas keep to their habitat patch for most of the day.

Q.  Do you have any estimation of how many vizcachas live in the park?

A.  That’s actually a hard question. People have conducted abundance estimations in other vizcacha species further north but personally, I think that estimating vizcacha numbers is inherently error-bounded. You can never know the real size of a colony if you don’t survey that colony for multiple days and get to know their members more. And vizcachas are not seen every day, some days you can only see one, while others you can see seven at once. It really depends on each habitat patch; if it’s big and has lots of good crevices you could expect to find a large colony. If the patch is smaller, you are usually able to see only a few individuals. In average we saw four vizcachas per patch. Only in our study area, we think there are at the very least 200 individuals.

Q.  What were some unexpected things you saw or discovered during your research?

A.  One interesting photo capture we got was a mountain lion walking by a vizcacha habitat patch. We don’t know whether this puma was there looking for vizcachas to eat, although I think it was just moving through.

Q. What do you plan to do now, after finishing the field part of your project?

A.  I plan to keep working with the GIS and keep working on the distribution patterns of the species. The abundance question also intrigues me— being able to say safely how abundant vizcachas are is very important. Knowing their numbers in an area can help in the future to determine if the species is stable or declining, which would have huge conservation implications.  Also I have to organize the videos/pictures collected from the camera trapping to draw some conclusions on the daily activity of these animals, especially about their night activity.

Photo: Guillermo Sapaj

Photo: Guillermo Sapaj

2 thoughts on “Studying Vizcachas: An Interview With Guillermo Sapaj

  1. Thursday February 27th, 2014 at 04:27 PM

    Felicitaciones a Conservación Patagonica y a Guillermo por su trabajo, y por el gran aporte que están realizando a la conciencia de proteger y estudiar nuestras especies nativas.
    Es tan valioso el aporte que están realizando… que espero de todo corazón que estos proyectos sigan creciendo y aumente la cantidad de chilenos que apoyen estos proyectos.
    Abrazos y éxito.

  2. Marta
    Saturday January 21st, 2017 at 03:21 PM

    Qué hermoso trabajo!

    Ahora me toca a mi investigar la población de Vizcachas pero en la V región, espero poder seguir tus pasos y aprender mucho de ellas.

    Un abrazo y felicidades!!

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