Patagonia Wildlife

Patagonia Wildlife Guide: 16 Fascinating Species in Patagonia

Patagonia Wildlife

Encompassing the southern section of the Andes mountain range as well as the deserts, grasslands, and pampas in southern Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is a region where “Wow” seems to be the natural state of things.

Picture majestic, snow-capped mountain peaks silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky, blue-grey lakes that shimmer with glacial runoff and sparkle with icebergs, and windswept plains covered in grasses and dotted with colorful flowers.

So it makes sense that many of the most iconic animals in Patagonia are as big as the landscape they inhabit. From the largest wingspan in the world (the Andean condor) and the South American continent’s second largest canid (the culpeo, or Andean fox) to the fourth largest cat on the planet (the puma, or cougar), here’s a look 16 of the most fascinating Patagonia wildlife species.

Andean Condor

Patagonia Wildlife

A relatively common sight in the Andes, this New World vulture is unmistakable for any other species. The Andean Condor has a massive wingspan of up to 10+ feet (the largest in the world), with a white ruff at the base of the neck and, in males, large white patches on the wings and a dark red comb on the crown of the head. With a lifespan of around 70 years, the biggest birds of Patagonia weigh in at an average of over 30 pounds. So they make an impressive impression as they soar above the mountains in search of carrion on which to scavenge, taking advantage of the region’s gusty winds in order to stay aloft.

Armadillos

Patagonia Wildlife

The armadillo (Spanish for “little armored one”) is an odd little creature, with a bony, leathery shell covering its head, back, legs, and tail and long, sharp claws for digging. Patagonia is home to two fascinating species, the large hairy armadillo, and the dwarf armadillo. The former (which is common in Argentina) has an especially large head plate, long hairs sticking out of its body, and dense hairs on its underparts that range from off-white to light brown. The latter, known as the pichi, average just 11 inches long and weigh about two tot here pounds. It’s also the only armadillo in the world that hibernates.

Chilean Flamingo

Puna Flamingo © Claudio Vidal

This endemic Patagonian wildlife species is a fairly large bird (measuring 43-51 inches) closely related to the American Flamingo and greater flamingo. They’re primarily found in saltwater lagoons and soda lakes, with a range that extends from Ecuador and Peru east to Brazil and south to Argentina and Chile. The beautiful bird boasts more vivid, pinker plumage than the greater flamingo, but it’s less pink than its cousins found in the Caribbean. It has grey legs with pink joints and a bill that’s more than 50% black. They prefer large flocks and crowded conditions for breeding, laying one egg in a pillar-shaped mud nest on the ground.

Commerson’s Dolphin

Patagonia Wildlife

Most often seen off the coast of Argentina’s Playa Union (in the Chubut Province) and Tierra del Fuego, these beautiful black-and-white dolphins are among the most engaging Patagonian animals you’ll meet. They’re named after French naturalist Dr. Philibert Commerson, who first spotted them in 1767 in the Strait of Magellan. More commonly referred to as the skunk or panda dolphin, they’re very sociable creatures and seem to love swimming alongside tourist and fishing boats, frolicking and leaping in the waves.

Culpeo

Patagonia Wildlife

Also known as the Andean fox or zorro culpeo, this is the second largest canid species in South America after the maned wolf. Its range extends almost the entire length of the continent’s western side, from Colombia and Ecuador down to southern Patagonia. The species is easily mistaken for the common red fox, with grey and red fur, white chin, reddish legs, a black-tipped bushy tail, and an often imperceptible stripe along its back. They’re larger than their cousins, averaging 19 to 25 pounds and 40 to 50 inches long, and mostly feed on birds, lizards, rabbits, and rodents. But they occasionally attack livestock, which unfortunately often leads to the animals being hunted or poisoned.

Darwin’s Rhea

Darwin's (Lesser) Rhea ©Claudio Vidal

Measuring 35 to 39 inches tall and weighing up to 63 pounds, this large flightless bird is a frequent (and unusual) sight along the roads to and through Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. It was named after famed naturalist Charles Darwin, who first documented the species in 1833, during the second voyage of the HMS Beagle. Also known as the lesser rhea, these weird winged wonders are cousins to the much larger ostrich and emu. They have small heads and bills and long necks and legs, with spotted brown and white feathers. Their large wings help them evade predators by running at speeds up to 37 miles per hour, and their razor-sharp toe claws make for potent weapons.

Geoffrey’s Cat  

One of the more beautiful and rarely seen examples of Patagonian wildlife, Geoffrey’s cat ranges all the way north to the Pampas of southern Brazil and the Gran Chaco landscape of southern Bolivia. But the animal– which is about the same size as a common house cat, with distinctive black spots and bands– is increasingly endangered in parts of Argentina and Chile. They’re generally shy, nocturnal creatures, inhabiting open woodland, grassland, and marshy areas that provide plenty of cover. If you’re lucky enough to see one, they often exhibit a unique behavior, using their tail to stand on their hind legs and scan the surrounding landscape.

Guanaco

patagonia photos guanacos

One of the more commonly seen species of Patagonia wildlife, these South American camelids strike an iconic profile in the hills of Torres del Paine National Park and Tierra del Fuego. Guanacos are cousins to the llama, who prefer the climate at 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes mountains. But guanacos don’t mind the cold deserts of the south, as they have extended necks and jaws and teeth that were designed to pull tough plants from the ground without removing the roots. We saw several families with 20+ members, but it’s not uncommon to see single, sexually mature males looking to start their own herd.

Humboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk

Also known as the Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk, this endemic species is found through Patagonia and south of the Strait of Magellan. Its nickname comes from its elongated snout and flat, hairless nose, which it uses to find the beetles, crickets, and grasshoppers upon which it tends to feed. They’re generally smaller than our North American skunks, with bodies that measure up to 19 inches long (plus tails up to 15 inches) and weigh up to 14 pounds. They’re plentiful, but rarely seen by visitors, as they live in places with bushy vegetation and come out at night to forage for food.

Magellanic Penguin

Patagonia Wildlife

Patagonia is home to four different species of penguins. The Magellanic penguin is medium-sized (24-30 inches tall, weighing 6-14 pounds), with a white abdomen, black back, two black bands between the head and breast, and a black head with white bands that run from the eyes to the throat. Unfortunately, their population has been in a steady decline in recent years, so the IUCN currently has them listed as Near Threatened. But they’re a relatively common sight in southern Patagonia, where they’re often seen nesting under bushes and in burrows on sandy, rocky shores.

Pampas Cat  

Also known as the colocolo or Pantanal cat, this beautiful wildcat is found in much of South America, from the Andes of Ecuador and Gran Chaco of Bolivia down to southern Argentina and Chile. The Pampas cat group has been divided into three distinct species and 11 subspecies, but they are generally small and heavy set, with relatively short tails (9 to 11 inches). The population found in Patagonia has been recognized as L. p. crucinus, which is stockier and duller in color than its northern cousins. The entire species is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List due to dwindling habitat. Not much is known about them, but reports suggest they hunt birds and rodents, mostly at night.

Puma 

Patagonia Wildlife

Alternatively known as the cougar, mountain lion, panther or catamount, this massive feline (which has 40+ names in English alone)  is the fourth largest cat species in the world. Adults range from 24 to 36 inches tall at the shoulders, 6 to 9 feet long (measured from the nose to the tip of the tail), and weighing anywhere from 65 to 230 pounds. They’re found almost everywhere in the Americas: Their size tends to be smaller as they get closer to the equator and larger as they get closer to the poles. But still the puma/cougar is not considered a “big cat,” cannot roar, and is technically more closely related to house cats than it is to members of the Pantherinae subfamily.

South American Grey Fox

Part of a different genus than the gray fox found in North America and Central America, this animal (a.k.a. the Patagonian fox) is smaller than the Culpeo. They average just 5 to 12 pounds, measuring around 26 to 43 inches from the nose to the tip of the tail. Their fur is brindled, with pale grey underparts, tawny legs, reddish-brown heads dotted with white, black spots on the chin, and bushy tails with a dark tip. Its range extends on either side of the Andes mountains, from northern Chile down to Tierra del Fuego. They will sometimes compete for food with the culpeo, and tend to feed on smaller prey and scavenge for carrion.

South Andean Deer

Also known as the southern guemul or Chilean huemul deer, this endemic species is almost critically endangered and is, therefore, a top wildlife conservation priority for the Patagonia National Park project. Their range includes much of the new park’s millions of acres, which were set aside for protection by Tompkins Conservation (a project led by late North Face founder Doug Tomkins and his wife Kristine, who was the clothing company’s CEO). Part of Chile’s national coat of arms, these beautiful animals have adapted to rugged, uneven terrain with short legs and a stocky build. Weighing 150 to 200 pounds, they have brown to grayish-brown coats with white throats and underparts.

Southern Pudú

Measuring just 13 to 18 inches tall and up to 33 inches long, the pudú (Pudu pudu) is the world’s smallest deer. There are two species: The smaller northern pudú is found in the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, while the slightly larger southern pudú is endemic to the densely wooded forests of Patagonia. Both species are characterized by thick bodies, short legs, conical heads, rounded ears, and 2 to 3.5-inch horns that curve back like those of a mountain goat. These solitary animals are rarely seen and primarily feed on leaves and grass, but consume a wide range of foliage in their native habitat. The slightly darker southern species is currently listed as near threatened, while the northern species is considered vulnerable due to habitat destruction and poaching.

Wolffsohn’s Viscacha

Mountain Viscacha. Photo by Claudio Vidal

These cuddly cuties may look a lot like rabbits with their elongated ears and cute, whiskered noses. But their long, fluffy tails offer a clue that they’re actually a member of the chinchilla family. Also known as the austral viscacha, this rodent is one of five related species found in South America. They’re rarer than their northern and southern Viscacha cousins but similarly live in large colonies that are separated into smaller family units. They’re typically found p to 13,000 feet above sea level in rocky outcroppings, where they emerge at dawn and dusk to feed on grasses, moss, and lichens.

BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.