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Darwin’s “Elegant Animal”

“It is an elegant animal in a state of nature, with a long slender neck and fine legs.”

When Charles Darwin chronicled his trip to Patagonia in 1833, he spent a considerable amount of time and page-space on one animal in particular: the guanaco, a wild relative of the llama. This ""South American representative of the camel of the East"" (as Darwin called it) is one of the most commonly seen animals in Patagonia, often found grazing in small groups along the sides of roads or in the undulating landscapes of Torres del Paine National Park. 

One of the reasons the guanaco has endured in Darwin's survival-of-the-fittest world is that it is uniquely suited to its environment. Its thick fur protects it from the winter cold and winds, and its padded feet are great for handling the rugged terrain here. Even their eyelashes help them adapt; they are extra thick, which is ideal considering the amount of dust and debris kicked up by high-winds. 

Should a predator attack, guanacos can make a formidable opponent. First, their size: they stand up to 4 feet tall (at the shoulder) and weigh up to 300 pounds. They are also quite nimble: when pursued by a puma, guanacos generally run in groups and can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour. This certainly has helped them in their attempts to avoid being prey, and Darwin observed some other behaviors that may have helped: ""I have more than once seen a guanaco, on being approached, not only neigh and squeal, but prance and leap about in the most ridiculous manner, apparently in defiance as a challenge."" If you manage to upset this camel-relative, he/she may react similarly to its camel cousins in the East--by spitting (with remarkable accuracy). 

On your Patagonia vacation, you're likely to see Darwin’s “elegant animal”—and we imagine you’ll be just as impressed as he was.

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