Learning from danger

13 05 2013
Guanaco fleeing
Study vehicle, a group of vicuñas and a guanaco in San Guillermo National Park (San Juan, Argentina) [courtesy of Marco Escudero]. Guanacos and vicuñas are native to South America, and are the ancestors of domesticated llamas and alpacas – which are exploited for their meat, milk and wool. Both species form monotypic genera. They have discontinuous distributions in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, with introduced populations in Paraguay (guanaco) and Ecuador (vicuña). Population estimates are > 500,000 (guanaco) and > 300,000 (vicuña), the latter restricted to high-altitude ecosystems. They are ‘Least Concern’ for the IUCN but, given their low population growth rates (fertility = 1 offspring/female/yr), guanacos and vicuñas are targeted by conservation programs in all their native countries.

Many of us might have stumbled twice on the same stone, yet learnt to be wary of future situations of similar risk. Likewise, wild animals can be predisposed to flee when faced with already known predators (or threats in general). The type and magnitude of their evasive response depends on predator distance, speed and body size (1). Regardless, prey need to assess predation risk in a matter of seconds (or even shorter than that), i.e., balancing the benefits and costs of fleeing.

The benefits all boil down to survival, but the costs might include moving away from offspring, loss of access to fresh and abundant food, or spending precious metabolic energy (2). The methods ecologists use to study animal flight behaviour in the wild are rife with nuisances (3), yet they represent a tool for quantifying wildlife stress resulting from a variety of human activities.

Equipped with our modern technological kit (weapons, vehicles, GPS, etc.), humans behave like genuine predators and can trigger the range of flight behaviours displayed by their potential prey. In that context, Emiliano Donadio and Steve Burskirk (4) studied flight behaviour of guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) in the Argentinean open plains (‘llanos’). They monitored 2 protected areas under weak surveillance and subject to illegal hunting: the Laguna Brava Provincial Reserve and the San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve (treatment = H); and one area free of hunting and only exposed to guided visits with strict entry/exit times: the San Guillermo National Park (treatment = NH). The ecologists did 3 transects per study area. When they encountered a group of camelids, they classified three types of flight behaviour (alert without fleeing, walking away, galloping away), and measured flight time (between vehicle detection and initiation of flight behaviour) and flight distance (between the vehicle and the individuals when initiating flight behaviour). Read the rest of this entry »