Like its flora, Chile’s fauna is largely correlated with altitude. In a sense, the entire country is an island, as the high Andes separate it from the rest of the continent, while the northern deserts impede the easy southward migration of plants and animals.
Marine, Coastal, and Aquatic Fauna
Paralleling most of Chile’s coastline, the Peru-Chile Trench reaches depths exceeding 8,000 meters; upwelling nutrients and the north-flowing Peru or Humboldt Current make this one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. Chile has always depended on the sea—even in pre-Colombian times, when northern coastal peoples exchanged fish, shellfish, and guano for agricultural products from the precordillera and altiplano. In the south, peoples such as the Yámana and Kawasqar subsisted largely on maritime resources.
Seafood, of course, lends Chilean cuisine its distinctive character—so much so that one North American foodie wrote that he felt he was observing the marinelife of another planet. For more information on seafood and shellfish, see the Food and Drink section.
As for marine mammals, in the Norte Grande, the indigenous Chango fished from rafts crafted from southern sea lion hides, found from the Peruvian border all the way to Tierra del Fuego. The southern elephant seal and southern fur seal are both classified as threatened or regionally endangered. The Juan Fernández fur seal is a narrow endemic found only on its namesake archipelago.
Several other Chilean marine mammals are in danger of immediate extinction without remedial action, including beaked whales, the blue whale, fin whale, humpback whale, Minke whale, pygmy right whale, sei whale, and southern right whale, and chungungo (sea otter). The bottlenosed dolphin and its relatives are common sights.
Terrestrial and Freshwater Fauna
Chile is poor in terms of land fauna, especially large mammals.
Mammals: Carnivores are fairly numerous, but the only large one is the widely distributed puma (mountain lion). Other wild felines include the smaller Andean cat and the jaguarundi, both endangered species. Two species of otters are also endangered, the long-tailed otter and the southern river otter. There are no wolves, but fox species include the threatened Argentine gray fox.
Wild grazing mammals include the vicuña, an endangered camelid related to the domestic llama and alpaca that occurs only in the northern altiplano. Its more widely distributed cousin, the wild guanaco, is most abundant on the Patagonian steppe but also found in parts of the Andes. Domestic livestock such as cattle, horses, burros, sheep, and goats are of course very common.
The South Andean huemul, a cervid that appears on Chile’s coat-of-arms, is the subject of a joint Argentine-Chilean conservation effort. In the mid-19th century, there were 22,000 in both countries, but only about 1,000 survive in each country south of the Río Biobío because of habitat destruction, contagious livestock diseases, and unregulated hunting.
The related North Andean huemul occurs only in the Norte Grande. The pudú, a miniature deer, extends from the Sur Chico well into Chilean Patagonia.
The northern altiplano is home to two noteworthy rodent species, the Andean vizcacha and its smaller nocturnal cousin the chinchilla. The former inhabits large rookeries and is easy to spot.
Reptiles and Amphibians: Chile is not quite snake-free, but they are rare and there is no venomous species. Even lizards are a rare sight.
Freshwater Fish and Crustaceans: Crustaceans are particularly uncommon, though the Salar de Atacama is home to a tiny brine shrimp.
What it lacks in other wildlife, Chile more than compensates for in birds, especially in the Norte Grande and southern Patagonia’s steppes and oceans. For Northern Hemisphere visitors and especially dedicated birders, the great majority are novelties on their life lists. For recommended birding guides, see the Suggested Reading section.
In the altiplano east of Arica, for instance, Parque Nacional Lauca (a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve) and its vicinity are home to more than 150 bird species, about a third of all the country’s species. Among them are the signature Andean condor, the ostrich-like ñandú or suri, Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo, James flamingo, the peregrine falcon, the tagua gigante (giant coot), and the Andean gull, not to mention many waterfowl species.
Some 240 species inhabit the Magellanic region, including the wandering albatross (with its awesome four-meter wingspan), the black-necked swan, Coscoroba swan, flightless steamer duck, kelp gull, and several penguin species, most commonly the Magellanic or jackass penguin; its close relative, the Humboldt penguin, is an endangered species that ranges far to the north. The greater rhea, also known as ñandú, roams the Patagonian steppes.
For purely practical purposes, visitors should pay attention to pests and dangers such as mosquitoes, flies, and ticks, which can be serious disease vectors, even though maladies such as malaria and dengue are almost unheard of—the mosquito vector for dengue has been found on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), though, and the disease itself was detected in 2002.
The reduvid or assassin bug, which bears trypanosomiasis (Chagas’ disease), is present in Chile, though it’s hardly cause for hysteria.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition