Vicuñas are valuable for many reasons: they grow the “world’s finest wool,” they are a prominent image on the Peruvian flag — and they drop nutrient-rich dung in areas in need of organic soil. In the Peruvian Andes, mountain areas that were once covered with glaciers are now home to bursts of vegetation thanks to vicuñas and their communal toilets.
Vicuñas, native to Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, are wild relatives of domesticated llamas and alpacas. Notoriously difficult to domesticate, vicuñas live in high alpine areas where they feed on sparse vegetation. Their thick and fine-fibered coats trap warmth to help them survive the freezing night-time alpine temperatures.
These coats have become famous in Peru and around the world for their fine and soft texture. Vicuñas and their wool have supported local economies, ecosystems, and cultural identity for millennia. Dating back to the Inca empire, an event called a chaccu occurs every year in indigenous Quechua communities, who also herd llamas and alpacas. Allison Caine, an anthropologist, explained this event to GlacierHub: “Once a year, in May, [the villagers] go out and walk the territory of the community and round up any wild vicuñas into a little pen where they shear them, collect the wool, and then release them.” The money from the export of this wool is shared equally with all who helped in the chaccu.
As glacial retreat has increased, vicuñas have taken on an importance beyond their fine wool: their dung is speeding up soil and vegetation development on high alpine rocky substrate, a normally very slow phenomenon called primary succession. Kelsey Reider, a biologist studying Andean ecosystems at Florida International University, explained this phenomenon to GlacierHub. “In recently de-glaciated areas, one of the most striking features of the landscape is vicuña latrines. This landscape is made up of a jumble of rocks with few plants because succession is so slow there,” she said. “Dispersed in this landscape of rocks and ice there are these patches of vegetation that are really diverse, complex, and soft. You can’t miss them.”
Researchers generally understand other animals’ latrines — shared toilet areas — as a way for these animals to lower their risk of disease and parasite retention. “The reason that other organisms use latrines is to concentrate all of the parasite risks in one place so that they can avoid it and forage somewhere else,” Reider told GlacierHub.
Reider and her team observed a peculiar phenomenon, however: a vicuña foraging on a vegetation-rich, but potentially parasitic, latrine. “This is really interesting because they’re not supposed to eat where they poop,” explained Reider. “This made us think a lot about the function of these latrines for vicuna. Could they be providing themselves with an important resource that could potentially facilitate their movement and enhance deglaciated areas as biological corridors?” What exactly the role of these latrines is for vicuñas is unknown as of yet.
However, the vicuña latrines may help alleviate some of the challenges created by climate change. Shrinking glaciers and changing weather patterns in the Andes are affecting many of the Quechua herders, predominantly women, who live in the Peruvian Andes and herd alpacas and llamas. During the wet season, their herds graze on the valley floors. During the drier months, herders bring their animals up to glacier-fed wetlands.
Unpredictable weather caused by climate change is affecting these movements. “What’s happening now is that we’re seeing longer periods of drought,” Caine told GlacierHub. “The rains are coming weeks later than the herders are expecting. They’re not able to move their herds from the wetlands down to the valley floors, and so they’re placing undue stress on the wetland environments and overgrazing them because they don’t have another option.”
By increasing vegetation at higher altitudes, vicuñas and their dung may help herders to able to withstand longer droughts. How much latrines could help feed their llama and alpaca herds and whether or not vicuñas could benefit from this additional food source requires more research, which Reider hopes to conduct in the future.
Vicuñas, once endangered but brought back by the Peruvian government and local communities, are changing post-glacial landscapes with their excrement. Their dung could prove to be another reason these animals are so prized in Peru and around the world.