The Patagonian huemul, as seen at the left, lives in the region of Patagonia, which is a region in South America that comprises both Chile and Argentina. They live along Chile’s
southern coast, roaming the Andes. The terrain is very mountainous with many wetlands, grasslands, shrub lands, and few desert areas. The climate all depends on the location of Patagonia. In the north, the land is very arid and dry, the south and west have frigid temperatures, and the east covered in forests. Additionally, the vegetation here are primarily deciduous and coniferous forests. In the northern part of Patagonia, the climate is very dry and grasslands cover the land. This species thrives in the west part of Patagonia, in the high and cold Andes. With such difficult geographic and climatic hardships, this deer is well suited to face the different seasons and different challenges it must overcome to survive.
The Patagonian Huemul’s habitat in Patagonia.
The Patagonian huemul’s body is well adapted to the environment they are in that allows them to thrive in Patagonia, an area known for the different geographic terrain they roam. Their coat is a grayish-brown color, ever so slightly oily that allows them to swim the icy lakes of the Andes. Patagonian huemul have tails that are anywhere from 11-13 cm long. They have short legs that are designed to help them walk the rocky and mountainous terrain of the Andes. It walks on all 4 of its legs. Their undersides are white and have white throat marks. Identifying this species is effortless, however spotting them comes as a real challenge for many. Patagonian Huemul have long, curled hair that acts as an insulator against the frigid temperatures and moisture. The size and weight of a huemul depends on the gender of the deer.
Typically, males weigh anywhere from 90-100 kg and stand 90 cm tall, whereas females weigh anywhere from 70-80 kg and stand 80 cm tall. The average huemul in the wild generally lives up to 14 years, but captivity and threats affect the lifespan of the deer. Bucks have antlers that shed annually. Patagonian huemul also have a specific face shape that curves into a heart and has a specific black “face mask”. Their long ears reach up to 25 cm, which aids in listening for any approaching predators. The changing of the seasons affect a huemul’s location. During the summer, the huemul ventures high into the Andes and in the winter, they migrate to the grasslands. They come to the grasslands as they cannot stand more than 30 cm of snow. In summary, the huemul is well fit to their surroundings and their appearance helps them thrive in their environment.
Diet and Food Acquisition
The Huemul feeds herbaceous plants and shrubs, and 32 types of plants have been identified that the deer eats.The huemul will find its food usually in deciduous or coniferous forests, sometimes even the grasslands as shown in the picture on the right. Two herbaceous plants this animal feeds on are maytenus sp. and nothofagus pumilio. However, the seasons can change the diet of the animal. In the summer, for instance, the animal prefers to eat the plant gramineae. When a huemul is in captivity, the diet tends to be much different, with different plants that appeal to the animal. In the past, the huemul preferred plants that are much different from the huemuls now. This is primarily due to geologic changes that have taken place that change the vegetation and preferences. Diets usually vary from one subpopulation to another.
To acquire food, the Patagonian Huemul has to scavenge for sometime. The species shares the same diet with another species, the Red Deer. Unfortunately, this causes a competition to rise between the two species. Another factor that limits the number of food available is the bringing of cattle to the area. Cattle feed on plants that the huemul would typically feed on, limiting the number of available food. Unfortunately, we humans have brought cattle to the grasslands where these deer feed. However, regulations have been put in that are now starting to regulate the cattle in the huemul’s land. Depending on the end result of the competition, the deer might eat the food it has acquired or will continue to scavenge for food.
Behavior and Communication
The huemul is mostly solitary, but are sometimes found in groups, which can be due to a variety of reasons. These are usually due to the changing of the seasons and location of the deer. In low-density populations, the group consists of anywhere from 2-3 deer, but as you move further east or in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park in the regions of Aysen and Magallanes, populations are anywhere from 7-8 deer per group. In the diagram on the right, it is an aerial view of South America where the huemul’s populations are dense and where they are more dispersed.This same amount was also observed in Torres del Paine National Park, where the groups consisted of 8 deer. During summer, groups of 10 can be seen. In the Protected Park Shoonem of Alto Rio Senguer in the province of Chubut in Argentina, it is common to see groups of larger numbers- for example, a group of 17 was reported to be seen in the autumn/winter times.
This study was only in captivity in parks. However in the wild, groups ranging anywhere from 50-100 deer are seen around this time. The huemul is most active during the change of seasons, when it moves from one terrain to another. Communication between deer is mostly done through the eyes and through physical contact. For example, if there was an approaching predator, the deer would attentively listen and then communicate using their eyes with other deer nearby. Examples where physical contact can be observed are during mating or when two bucks are having a head-to-head competition for a mate. Unfortunately, this species does suffer from many threats and predators. Predators of the huemul include humans, pumas, domestic dogs, culpeo foxes, and rarely other foxes. They face many threats, especially from humans, such as overhunting, poaching, illegal hunting, urbanizing the species’ natural habitat, constructing homes, etc.
Pumas and humans are the two predators that pose the most threats to the huemul. The diagram on the left shows the decrease in population after many threats were posed to the species. To protect themselves and their young from these threats and predators, Patagonian huemul like to move to brush environments, steep slopes, rocky terrain, and forests. These environments have an abundance of food and provide more protection from predators. Huemuls have long ears that reach up to 25 cm, so they can actively listen for predators. They constantly listen and if they hear anything suspicious, then they will stop and look up, scanning the area for any threats. If any threats are posed in a group, then one deer will start to move, which then alerts the other deer to also follow and a chain reaction follows. If there is one single deer, then the deer will start distancing itself from the stealthy predator. Thus, the groupings of this deer all depends on the circumstance it is under, and has various ways of communicating with other deer which helps them survive.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
The Patagonian Huemul’s reproductive cycle is quite similar to a human’s reproductive cycle, since both are marsupials and the offspring grows and develops in the stomach. The life cycle of the Patagonian Huemul begins in the womb of its mother. The deer’s gestation period is 2-8 months. The total number of offspring produced is 1 fawn per pregnancy. The Patagonian huemul likes to restrict its family size to a certain number of individuals, and this low birth rate is due to the many threats that this species faces. This is the reason that they have become so vulnerable. This species likes to breed during the transition between Winter and Spring, as well as Spring and Summer. They like to breed between February and May, which usually lasts 4-5 months. Fawns are typically born in the Autumn and Winter, during the months of November and December. Fawns are born in isolated areas where they can hide from predators while their mothers forage. The weaning period is 4-5 months after birth and the sexual maturity period can start as early as 6 months.
Not much cultural ties and human uses are found, as this animal thrives much on its own without much human interaction. This is due to much more regulation. The Huemul’s name is of Araucanian origin. The Araucanian Indians of Patagonia gave this deer its given name as the deer always walks in a single file line, the verb “huemin” meaning “to follow”. The Patagonian Huemul is Chile’s national animal and is present in Chile’s Coat of Arms. However, people have flocked to Chile to hunt this animal for recreation, which severely hurt the population. Due to its importance in the country, many acts and regulations have been put in to help save the national animal. Although they are the national animal of Chile and are supposed to be spotted easily, they are quite difficult to spot. These species can swim through the icy lakes of the Andes.
The Patagonian Huemul has many common names and goes by many common names. Several times before, the huemul was misinterpreted to be a horse instead of a deer and was mistakenly depicted as a horse several times on Chile’s coat of arms. Whatever the depiction may be, the Patagonian Huemul will forever be Chile’s national animal and the importance of preserving this species will continue and hopefully in the future, stricter rules and regulations will be put in place.