I was lucky to be invited to speak at the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Congress in Lima, Peru in October. During the conference, I decided to make a couple of side trips to the Amazon River basin and into the high desert to experience the flora and fauna of that region – admittedly a bit heavy on the fauna! For today’s blogpost, I thought I’d share some of the surprising animals I met on my travels.
On a night walk in the Amazonian rainforest, our guide pointed out a big, hairy tarantula peeking out of a hole in the ground near the base of a tree. He explained this is a typical tarantula nest. Tarantulas are nocturnal, and she had come out to hunt. Even though they are spiders, tarantulas don’t spin webs; they capture and kill their prey. Our guide told us this was a female tarantula and, sure enough, out of the nest came two smaller tarantulas, likely her offspring. I had no idea baby spiders were looked after once they hatched!
Although tarantulas are far less common in the American Northeast, the Schwarzman Animal Medical Center’s Avian and Exotic Pet Service does see a few tarantula pets as patients. Female tarantulas are the common spider pet because males don’t live very long.
The Agouti and Brazil Nuts
One afternoon, we were out with our guide and encountered a big, brown creature that I mistakenly thought was a capybara, the world’s largest rodent. No, this was an agouti, another rodent about the size of a Jack Russell terrier. The agouti has a beautiful, ticked coat like that of a ruddy Abyssinian cat. In fact, the word “agouti” is used an adjective to describe animal fur coloration in which each hair shows multi-colored bands.
The agouti is critically important to the Amazon ecosystem because it eats and thus disperses Brazil nuts. The agouti is the only animal with tooth enamel thick enough enamel to allow them to chew though the Brazil nut’s tough husk. Local humans use a machete. Once open, the agouti knocks the Brazil nut around, like the feeding toys we us for environmental enrichment in our pets, to get the individual nuts out of the husk and have lunch. After our agouti scurried away, we found an open Brazil nut on the trail.
Despite their name, Brazil nuts are can also be found in Peru and Bolivia, but nowhere else in the world.
Camelids of Peru
Prior to this trip, I was unaware there are four types of camelids found in Peru, all with two toes per foot: llamas, alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos. My prior experience with Andean camelids goes back to veterinary school when I once cared for some alpacas blinded by an equine virus they picked up on their home farm.
The alpaca and the llama are mid-sized sized camelids; the guanaco is the largest and the vicuna is the smallest. All four species are part of the ruminant family. They have a three-part stomach, which is unique to Andean camelids, whereas cows, sheep and goats have four-part stomachs. We could easily observe all four species grazing along the roadside. Unless the four species are close to each other, it takes a trained eye to recognize which one is which. Vicunas are the national animal of Peru and appear on the country’s flag. Vicuna wool is highly prized for its fine texture. The cost of vicuna wool is greater than cashmere possibly because of how difficult it is to round up and shear these speedy and graceful creatures.
Whether it is your favorite feline, the family dog or a fascinating creature in the wild, the wonder and joy animals spark in us is so special, and we are lucky to live our lives among them.
Agouti, exotic pets, Peru, Tarantulas, travel, WSAVA,