Conserving the last of the wild: pumas and wild camelids in the semiarid landscapes of the Argentinean Andes

Emiliano Donadio

The loss of species interactions may result in negative impacts that affect both interacting species and the biological communities and ecosystems they inhabit. Unlike North America, southern South American predator-prey systems have been disrupted mainly through the elimination of large native prey (i.e. wild South American camelids: guanacos and vicuñas). Consequently, over vast areas of southern South America, the interaction between South American camelids and their main predator, the puma, has been disrupted with unknown consequences for biological communities. This project aimed to evaluate the community level importance of the predator-prey interaction between wild South American camelids (particularly vicuñas) and pumas in one of the last wild areas, San Guillermo National Park, where such interaction still occurs. The main goals of this research were (1) to analyze the spatial distribution of puma predation on vicuñas; specifically, we investigated if some habitats were more or less risky for vicuñas and (2) to evaluate whether different levels of risk perceived by vicuñas resulted in a mosaic of habitats that differ in several community variables; specifically we investigated, in safe and risky habitats, vicuña foraging and vigilant behavior, and experimentally analyzed vicuña grazing impact on vegetation and small fauna.