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47. Zoology in Chile during 1945-2022

MAR. 17, 2022


In this animalistic episode of History Happened Everywhere, Ryan and Pete take on the challenge of Zoology in the South American wildlife wonderland of Chile! Together they take a walk through the wild-side looking at everything that flaps, crawls, squawks and roars! 

This episode sees Ryan travel to South America to La República de Chile.

Some say the name “Chile” comes from an indigenous Mapuche word “chili” meaning “where the land ends”. Others claim it’s based on the imitation of a native bird-call that sounds like “cheele cheele”. Who knows?

It occupies a narrow strip of land 2,700 miles (4,300 km) long from Peru to Cape Horn at the tip of South America and is the southernmost country in the world.

As a nation it is squashed between the Andes mountain range to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Because of the close relationship to the Andes – Chile is mostly mountainous, but, it also has everything else - from desert to forest to subantarctic. It is home to the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world with less than 12mm of rain per year on average with some areas going hundreds of years without any rain at all.

Chile is also located along the pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, so called because of the major faults in the ocean floor, faults which result in 36 active volcanos, plus earthquakes and tsunamis.

In fact the tallest active volcano in the world is 'Nevado Ojos de Salado' at 6,880 m/ 22,572 ft tall. Chile also holds the unfortunate record for the largest recorded earthquake: the 1960 Valdivia Earthquake, placed between 9.4–9.6 on the moment magnitude scale, killing 1000 people.

90% of the world’s potatoes originate from Chile and it is one of the only governments in the world with an official department dedicated to researching UFOs. There has to be a link there somewhere. Do aliens like potatoes?

As a snack before the show got started, Ryan made Pete Chile's favourite street food - a sandwich called ‘sánguche de potito’. This originated in the mid-19th century as a snack to be eaten on train journeys but is now sold outside of football stadiums.

Described as rich and chewy, the sandwich is served in a marraqueta (a crusty French bread-type roll), lathered with mayo and ketchup, filled with fried onions, and.. meat from the rectum of a cow. Potito means ‘bottom’ or ‘bum’, so yeah, it’s a bum sandwich.  

Zoology is the branch of biology that studies the animal kingdom including the structure, embryology, evolution, classification, habits, and distribution of all animals, both living and extinct, and how they interact with their ecosystems.

It combines elements of biology, psychology, environmental science and conservation of animal life.

So for this episode, Pete and Ryan decided to become Chilean Zoologists.

Animals of Chile

Dogs and cats are the most popular pet species among Chilean households and up to 79 percent own at least one dog.

On top of these, there are street dogs everywhere - 2.5 million of them. As a rabies-free nation, it’s said the people are more accepting of these animals. In fact, known as ‘Quiltro’, these dogs are considered a national treasure – they belong to everyone rather than to individuals.

Chileans build homes on street corners for them and make winter sweaters for them and people protested when the government threatened to implement laws to control Quiltro population growth.

And then there was Spike.

In 2003, at a fair in Lo Prado, a small dog nuzzled up against the leg of a police sergeant and dog trainer called Jose Montanares. Jose immeadiately fell for the dogs charm and charisma, took him home and adopted him, calling him Spike

Jose trained spike alongside his German Shepards and took his dog show to local schools until, in 2004, the principal of one kindergarten, who also happened to work for TVN, suggested that Jose’s performing dogs be considered for a television commercial.

The advert was a hit, and Spike in particular was the star and he went on to feature in over 30 of their commercials, playing opposite celebrities and building a fanbase and Youtube channel with over a million subscribers.

Sadly, Spike died in 2016, age 14, the victim of a heart attack

Wild creatures

Chile is home to a fascinating and diverse range of wild animals who are considered ownerless property (res nullius) – i.e. can’t belong to anyone.

It has more than 600 vertebrate species, two dozen of which are considered exotic (i.e. non-native and introduced to the country), living in country with 100 protected areas covering a total area of 14.5 million hectares (20% of the country)

Laws regulating exploitation of wildlife have been in force since 1888 which have been improved upon since the 1990s, with regulations of 1993 being the most recent and stringent.

This has resulted in almost total check over hunting and commercialization of vertebrates, except for exploitation of bird species, two deer (introduced), vertebrate pests, and the inducted species of European hare and European rabbit.

National Animals
The Chile coat of arms depicts two creatures, the North Andean Huemul and the Andean Condor – the national animal and bird of chile.

The Huemel is a medium sized deer identified by a dark Y or V shape on their faces with antlers that can grow up to 30cm. They live at high altitudes in groups of up to 7 and have been on the vulnerable species list since 1976 due to poaching.

In 2006 the deer was made a ‘National Natural Monument’, i.e. a natural/cultural feature of outstanding or unique value because of its inherent rarity, representative of aesthetic qualities or cultural significance.

The Andean Condor is among the earth’s biggest flying birds with a wingspan of 5.5 m/ 15.5 ft and weight of 15kg (33lb).

Primarily a scavenger it prefers large carcasses such as deer or cattle, it nests at heights of 5000m or 16000 ft and is one of the world’s longest living birds – with a lifespan of over 70 years.

In 1970 it was listed as vulnerable on the conservation scale and in 1989 a reintroduction programme was established for Andean condors.

22 birds were bred in zoos in the USA and between 1989 and 1992, all 22 birds were released at sites in the Andes.

The birds ranged over nearly 200 km2 over two years and one year later in 1993, 19 were still alive, which was encouraging.

Chile is also home to a vast range of other creatures, including:

The Pudú – the world’s smallest deer. Also known as the "Chilean mountain goat" they come in two types: Southern and Northern, with Southern being slightly larger.

Pudu range in size from 32-44cm (13-17in) tall, and up to 85cm (33in) long, weigh up to 12 kg (26 lb) and live very solitary lives, coming together only to mate.

Macaroni penguins, a species of penguin with a distinctive yellow crest on its’ head like yellow eyebrows. This penguin consumes more marine life than any other species of seabird and spends 6 months of the year in the sea. One study in 2009 revealed that macaroni penguins travelled over 10,000 km (6,200 miles) to the central Indian Ocean.

When on land they form colonies of up to 100,000 individuals, with an estimated 18 million in total (the most numerous of any penguin), although despite this, they still have a conservation status of ‘vulnerable’.

Chinchilla. Wild Chinchilla colonies can only be found in Chile. These little creatures have the densest fur of all mammals that live on land (the sea otter has a denser coat) – 60 hairs from each follicle.

It’s named after the chincha people who wore its fur and the industry still active today, with one coat requiring 150 pelts.

Wild & Wacky animals!
Chile is home to some unique animals, particularly in the region of Nazca-Desventuradas National Park.

On August 24 2015, the Chilean government announced the creation of the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park, located 911 kilometers west of the Chilean city of Caldera. Encompassing 300,035 square kilometers (115,844 square miles), it is now the largest protected marine area in the Americas.

Within the area, zoologists have discovered that 72% of the species there are found nowhere else in the world, including swimming crabs, with legs that have evolved into paddles, decorator Crabs which wander around the sea floor holding objects above their shells to camouflage themselves and frogfish, which are fish that look like.. frogs.

On the subject of frogs, Chile also plays host to the Darwin Frog. This is a frog which is camouflaged as a dead leaf, with a sharp pointy noise and they can be seen on pottery dating back 2000 years.

The Darwin frog was first discovered by non-native people in 1841 by French zoologist André Marie Constant Duméril and named after Charles Darwin due to the fact they are evolutionarily distinct from most other amphibians, splitting from all other amphibian lines around 55 million years ago.

But one of the most unique things about the Darwin frog is their habit of ‘mouth brooding’. After the female frog lays up to forty eggs, the male guards them for about three to four weeks until the embryos begin to wiggle, at which point he ingests the eggs and holds them in his vocal sac.

They hatch about three days later and he continues to carry the tadpoles around in his vocal sac where they feed off their egg yolks and secretions produced by the wall of the sac until metamorphosis.

At this stage, about 6 weeks after being swallowed, the small frogs hop out of the male's mouth and disperse .

Once the most common and abundant amphibians in Chile, there has been a significant population decline due to habitat loss, largely from the conversion of native forests to tree plantations Zoologists are currently studying the critical effects of removing the frog from the ecosystem.

In 2020, the Darwin Frog was officially recognised as ‘Critically Endangered – Possibly Extinct in the Wild’, having not been reported since 1981 despite intensive surveys. In an effort to save the species, two zoos in Chile are now collaborating on conservation efforts with captive colonies.

Dangerous animals
Chile has only a few animals to be wary of, but of the most dangerous, you want to watch out for the Long-Tailed Pygmy Rice Rat.

This cute little rodent, doesn’t attack or bite but it does carry a unique strain of Hantovirus, a disease which starts with flu-like symptoms but if untreated, leads to more serious symptoms such as fluid on the lungs, resulting in an inability to breathe, which is bad.

Considered dangerous, it has a high mortality rate in Chile and is found in the rat’s droppings and urine.

So, if you’re staying in rural areas – wash your hands frequently and disinfect anything that comes into contact with rat droppings. Which we hope you’d do without our prompting, to be honest.

Another dangerous dude is the Chilean Slender Snake, the most dangerous snake found in Chile. It is a venomous species, with ‘rear fangs’ – i.e. fangs at the back of its mouth. However, rest easy as the bite is not fatal to humans – only mildly harmful, with victims experiencing pain, but not death.

Chile is also home to the Rose-Coloured Tarantula, a large spider named for the beautiful pink hairs on its body. It lives in the desert wilds of northern Chile and, if cornered they have bristly spines or hairs on its abdomen which it shoots towards an attacker. These are very effective against small mammals but for humans will only cause some itching.

The tarantula has a venomous bite as well, but it is not fatal to humans.

Cats of Chile
Chile is also where you can find the KodKod the smallest wild cat in the Americas at 37cm long. They rival only two other species for the title of smallest wild cat in the world and have short ears, a stubby tail marked with black rings, and large feet which zoologists think indicates they use to climb up rocks and trees.

The cats prey mainly on small mammals like rodents, marsupials and rabbits, birds and lizards but also, unfortunately, poultry. This puts them at odds with the rural communities who argue they are a harmful and worthless animal, often killing them to protect their livestock.

And as well as angry farmers, the KodKod faces dangers from attacks by dogs, and being runover by vehicles.

So a conservation plan funded by National Geographic started in 2018 to protect the cat

One major aim is to improve the perception of the cats to local people by providing subsidies for chicken farmers to construct predator-proof coops. They also plan to place speed bumps and signs where the cats tend to cross roads, and establish wildlife corridors so that the cats can travel around Chile without interacting too closely with humanity

Constanza Napolitano, the project director, said: “The protection of this cat works like an 'umbrella', because many other species will indirectly benefit from the measures contemplated in this plan”

The Puma (Incan word for ‘powerful and strong’) is the largest wild cat in Chile and the fourth largest in the world. It is solitary and reclusive, inhabiting mostly mountainous zones.

Pumas don’t roar – they purr like a house cat, but they also jump on their prey from behind and grab their neck in their fangs, so don’t get too close.

1.5 to 3m in length, they can weigh anything from 65 up to 100kg, jump 18 feet in the air and run as fast as 50 miles per hour. So good luck with that escape plan.

In March 2020, with Santiago city under total lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, wild pumas were spotted roaming the streets of the Chilean capital emboldened by the lack of human activity to enter the city from their natural habitat in the mountains to search for food. One young male weighing up to 30kg was spotted in a residential area - authorities were called, they tranquilised and captured him, and released him into the wild 2 days later.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of animals spreading the coronavirus to people is low, but the virus can spread from people to animals during close contact. So, in December 2021, Buin Zoo on the outskirts of Santiago worried that their animals might be susceptible, so they reached out to a health company called Zoetis Inc who donated an experimental vaccine which they tested on three tigers, three lions, three pumas and an orangutan.
None of the animals have shown any symptoms since

Aquatic Creatures!
The waters or Chile are also home to numerous other marine species, including humpback, sei and sperm whales, sea lions, seals, and several dolphin species.

The Gulf of Corcovado is the fertile feeding and nursing grounds for blue whales—the world’s largest mammal.

And sharks, there are sharks. According to there have been six attacks by sharks in the waters off Chile, 3 being fatal. The first recorded case was Sunday, 29 Sep, 1963, in El Panul, 12 km south of Coquimbo in the north of the country.

Crisolog Urizar and his friend went out for a spot of spear-fishing. They hunted adult sheephead wrasse, attaching their catches to a stringer on their weight belts.

At one point, Crisolog’s friend turns and comes face to face with a 4m White Shark, Crisolog’s a spear gun trailing from its mouth.

He swam desperately for safety and climbed onto one of the rocks and looks back to the attack site where he sees the shark’s dorsal and caudal fins are still circling a two-metre bloodstained area of water.

No trace of Crisolog was found, except for his jacket, severely gashed, which eventually washed ashore.

Extinct animals

Palaeozoology, is a branch of zoology dealing with the recovery and identification of animal remains from geological contexts. Palaeozoologists use the fossils they find to reconstruct prehistoric environments and ancient ecosystems.

For a long time, it was thought that there were no dinosaurs in Chile, but over the past decade, several major new species have been described including Stegouros elengassen, the most recent finding, and one of the most important in the history of Chilean paleontology. This was discovered by Archeologists digging in the Magallanes region, an area biogeographically related to West Antarctica, where they found an almost complete skeleton of a dinosaur that was 2 m (6 feet) long including its short tail.

Sergio Soto and Alexander Vargas, two researchers from the Universidad de Chile investigated the animal and found it to be 74 million years old (the Upper Cretaceous epoch), a herbivorous armored dinosaur that walked on all fours and had a heavy club at the end of its tail.

Calling it ‘Stegouros elengassen’ derived from the the Greek words “stego” (meaning roof) and “uros” (menaing tail) and “elengassen” coming from an armoured beast in the mythology of the Tehuelche people.

Chilesaurus Diegosuarezi is another Chilean dinosaur that was discovered on 4th February 2004 by seven-year-old Diego Suárez. He found a rib and a vertebrae dating from the Late Jurassic - 145 million years ago.

In life, it would have measured 3.2m (10.5ft) from nose to tail and had unusual spatula-shaped, elongated teeth, pointing forwards at an oblique angle indicating that it was a plant eater.

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