On the northern end of Chile near the Bolivian border is the town of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama is on the northwestern edge of the Atacama desert up against the Andes at an elevation 7,900ft. Yearly precipitation is less than 2 inches. One of the areas one can visit is close by in the Andes near the Bolivian border at over 14,000 ft. It is a geothermal area named El Tatio (the grandfather.) At the higher altitude, there are quite a few different species of animals. In South America, there are four types of camelids (there are 6 in the world.) Two are domesticated and better known, the llama and the alpaca. The other two are wild, the guanaco and the vicuña (Vicuña vicuña.) Vicuñas are found at the highest elevations (10,500 to 18,000 feet) in the Andes of southern Peru, western Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, and northeastern Chile. I’ve seen them in all those countries except Argentina. As you may know, alpacas are much smaller than llamas. Similarly, vicuñas are much smaller than guanacos. DNA indicates that the vicuña is the wild ancestor of the alpaca. Both alpaca and vicuña wool are prized, with vicuña being far more expensive. As one might expect, there was a period when they were widely hunted, almost to extinction. In 1974 when they were declared endangered, an estimated 6,000 animals remained. The population has recovered under conservation protection to hundreds of thousands. Of the camelids, the vicuña and alpaca are the smallest. Vicuñas weight less than 150 lbs. They live in family groups of a male and up 5 to 15 females. The young are called fawns. To accommodate running at up to 30mph, vicuña hearts are 50% larger than other species in the same weight range. Looking small and fragile, they are actually well adapted to the high altitudes. They have thick, soft coats to keep them warm and teeth that have enamel only on one side and constantly grow as they wear away eating tough grasses. They also walk on the soles of their feet allowing their toes to grip steep slopes.

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