National Animals of South America

The Huemul

The huemul is one of two endangered Andean deer species belonging to the genus Hippocamelus.

Hippocamelus belongs to the family Cervidae, or deer family.

The other species is the Taruca. These are found in the cloud forests of Peru, parts of Bolivia and tree-less grasslands. They live in high altitudes at 2,500 to 5,200 metres above sea level. The taruca is diurnal and has a lifespan of around ten years. It is listed as 'vulnerable'.

The huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is found in Chile and Argentina between 900 and 1,700 feet above sea level. Its other common name is the South Andean deer. It is found in the mountains and cold valleys of the Andes. However they cannot survive in areas with a snow cover of over 30 cm. Historically, it is believed that the huemul once frequented a wide band along southern Patagonia and the southern Andes. They are now limited to more remote parts.

Huemul on RockCredit: Wikimedia

The huemul lives at high altitudes during the summer but moves down to spend the winter in sheltered forest valleys. The terrain is often very rough with scrubland, low bluffs and peri-glacial scrubland. They seek out areas with fresh water.

The huemul is a medium-sized deer with a stocky, thick body and short legs. The hind legs appear bent leading to a hunched appearance

Does weigh 70 to 80 kg and bucks about 10 kg more. Bucks are also taller at 90 cm compared to the does 80 cm. The body length of the male is 140 to 175 cm and the female slightly shorter.

HuemulCredit: Wikimedia

The coarse coat is long and curled, providing protection against the cold and moisture. During the winter, wind-chill temperatures of up to minus 50 degrees Celsius have been recorded. The coat is dark brown to grey-brown with paler undersurfaces, a white throat and a short tail which is white underneath. In the summer the colour is richer. The double coat has guard hairs of 5 to 7 cm in winter and 3 to 4 cm in summer. The ears are large and lined with white fur. The nose is large and black.

The bucks have branching antlers that may reach 35 cm long before being shed each year before spring arrives. The males (and occasionally females) also have a 'face mask' of black which makes an elongated heart-shape around the brown forehead. The deer congregate in mixed sex groups which increase in number the further down the mountain slopes the animals gather, suggesting that predators are more to be feared in the open valley bases.

The huemul live in groups which used to number over 100 but might now be a maximum of 11 and perhaps just two or three. Males sometimes live a solitary life. The huemul is diurnal and has a lifespan of around ten to fourteen years. Their senses of sight, hearing and smell are all acute and they are tolerant of people in undisturbed areas. If they have been harassed by humans or domestic dogs, they become very shy and timid. The males rarely fight and the huemul does not seem to be territorial. They have a range of vocalisations and when alarmed will snort and stamp their front legs.

The huemul is herbivorous, feeding on the leaves and tender shoots of herbaceous plants and shrub. They also eat lichen and grasses found among the rocks on the high peaks of the Andes. One source says it is rare to see them eating grass. The stomach is four-chambered and many different plant species are ingested.

Fawns are born unspotted. Although not a lot of research has been done on the huemul, gestation is believed to be about 7 months and one fawn is born. It is kept hidden for up to a month before being introduced to the herd. The fawn is weaned at 4 to 5 months and may be sexually mature at 6 to 7 months. Most young are born in November/December and are a solid brown in colour. The females find an isolated area to give birth and the fawns are hidden while the mothers forage.

The red deer competes for the same primary food species as the huemul which has pushed the huemul to marginal areas as they are smaller than the red deer. Their only natural predator is the cougar and this is a major cause of deaths. Domestic dogs, foxes, cats and birds of prey may tackle young huemuls.

The huemul was once hunted occasionally by native Americans, mainly for its skins and poaching is still a problem although hunting has been banned. Habitat destruction, fires, over-grazing through ranching, recreational activities and the replacement of native forests with forests of exotic trees all increase the isolation of huemul populations and make the animal more vulnerable to local extinction.

The huemul is listed by the IUCN as 'endangered'. The huemul, along with the condor, is the national animal of Chile in South America.

Chilean Coat of ArmsCredit: Wikimedia

The huemul is also found on Chile's national coat-of-arms and was proclaimed a National Natural Monument in 2006.