Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

The Unique Birthing Ritual of Guanacos

SHARE

Guanacos have a unique problem when it comes to reproducing. They must gather in November at exactly the right time of day to give birth so the newborn can dry out on its own. A guanaco’s too-short tongue prevents it from licking its newborn clean.

♪♪ THURMAN: Patagonia.

♪♪ Land of the pumas.

Realm of the condor.

[ Growling ] -[ Snarl ] ♪♪ Icy air, warm eyes.

♪♪ Four puma kittens are born to a successful huntress.

-[ Snarling ] -[ Yelping ] It is a land of extremes.

♪♪ Of beauty.

♪♪ Of surprises.

♪♪ ♪♪ It is the land of Torres del Paine, in Southern Chile, where the blue ice mountains tower over this single puma family bloodline.

[ Outro plays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ If you follow the footprints near the end of the world, they will lead you to the high mountains of Chile.

♪♪ [ Wind whipping ] It's where the ever-present wind seems to whisper of an ancient heartbeat.

♪♪ Myths speak of one who rules the land here... ♪♪ ...and these cats, that are perfectly adapted to living in this frigid landscape.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ They are pumas, the legends of the ice mountains.

They're a symbol of power and strength to so many cultures in their range.

♪♪ And the land they guard stretches all the way down the Andes, the 5,000 miles of the Cordillera de los Andes.

♪♪ It is in Chile, just inland from the great Southern Ice Fields, one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world, that our story begins.

It is also here that the great Andean condor rules the skies above this mountainous backbone of South America.

♪♪ ♪♪ The same ancient myths claim that, while the pumas rule the land, condors are the messengers of the gods in the heavens.

And no story is complete without heaven and earth, and here, the two seem to meet.

It's a place called Torres del Paine.

♪♪ The shadows of the condor's wings touch one particular family of pumas today.

♪♪ [ Growl ] We'll call her Solitaria.

She is sleek and gracious and seems to be always searching the horizon for clues.

Caracaras are often the first birds to descend onto carrion.

It may be what she's after.

[ Purring ] [ Meows ] The cubs are about three months old, just about time for them to venture out into the world, after their mother.

It'll flood their senses with scents and sounds, with tempting sights of things to chase.

[ Rumble ] One cub is particularly close.

It doesn't make Solitaria's job any easier.

False alarm.

She'll have to go off hunting.

Out here in these Patagonian foothills, the wind is constant, and that makes sneaking around much more difficult for a puma.

No story of Torres del Paine is complete without that of the herds of guanacos.

♪♪ A sentinel aims his nose into the wind.

Despite being very prolific, with probably half a million of them in South America, guanacos have a unique problem... [ Lowing ] ...and it makes them adapt in a very specific way.

♪♪ They gather at exactly the right time of day, at exactly the right month, to start a ritual -- to give birth.

It happens a few hours before midday and a few after, in November, in the heat, each year.

♪♪ They've fine-tuned this as an adaptation because guanacos have tongues that are just too short to extend beyond their lips, so they simply cannot lick a newborn clean.

♪♪ Birthing is perfectly timed so he can dry out on his own.

♪♪ It's a male chulengo, and he has just 10 minutes to stand.

Only one in four of them will make it to their first year, through the gauntlet of pumas that live here.

♪♪ [ Chirps ] ♪♪ It's a tense few hours for the herd.

♪♪ ♪♪ But the little chulengo makes the cutoff time, albeit not terribly elegantly, but it's a good start to his next 25 years.

♪♪ ♪♪ And these are the events that condors look out for, the other three of the four that don't make it.

♪♪ Solitaria is on the move again... ♪♪ ...following the birds.

This time, it pays off.

♪♪ The kittens are about to be introduced to meat for the first time.

It's someone else's kill, or a natural death that she is scavenging.

Solitaria does a lot more of that than you'd expect from a huntress of her reputation.

[ Snarling ] The little female kitten with more spots on her body than the others stays closer, more engaged.

When her siblings play, she 'hunts' her mother.

♪♪ The voices on the Ice Mountain are not silent here for long.

♪♪ In Torres, seasons change in a day, snapping cold sending everything into a huddle.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Squawking ] Flamingos, that you'd expect to have flown north by now, have stayed, adapting with the most delicate of balances, raising their body temperatures, but also preserving calorie burn.

♪♪ These fields of guanacos belong to a single, dominant male puma -- La Roca, 'The Rock.'

He's the busiest puma here.

Every time it snows, all his territorial markings get covered.

His is a vast territory, that overlaps Solitaria's, so he's constantly on the move.

If he leaves one corner unattended for a moment, young puma males pop up, looking to take over.

♪♪ La Roca's scent is just too fresh today, and the young male decides on discretion, and the next valley.

♪♪ Male pumas will avoid a battle, if at all possible.

As the wind races off the ice fields and up the mountains, it freezes the air.

♪♪ Everything moves as if on fragile glass, on precious crystals that'll break with a breath.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Grumble ] [ Snorting ] Solitaria is on the move.

She's seen these winters before.

She knows how to turn it to her advantage.

The ground crunches underfoot.

If she flips a pebble, the game will be up.

Stalking is difficult.

[ Squawking ] ♪♪ So she sticks to the soft snow, picking her footsteps.

♪♪ [ Chattering ] ♪♪ [ Grunting ] ♪♪ [ Growling ] The explosion of a light tawny cat from the dappled snowfield is the last thing the guanacos expect.

-[ Yelping ] -[ Growl ] ♪♪ -[ Bleats ] -[ Whining ] -[ Growling ] -[ Screeching ] It's confusing, and lethal.

[ Screech ] At least one cub is taking it all in, every moment of the life-and-death struggle, because, one day, this lesson will make all the difference in life.

It's time to name her, too -- 'A Beautiful Huntress,' La Bella Cazadora, albeit in the first stages of learning.

[ Purring ] Because of this closeness, Cazadora will grow just a little larger with each mouthful she forces down, while the others play.

[ Grumbling ] The rule of the valley is that those who get even the slightest edge survive.

[ Chirps ] In a competitive family, the one that figures out the best spot to absorb free heat wins the day.

And it's usually Cazadora.

♪♪ Patagonia is not a place for the weak.

It's the wily that quickly adapt.

♪♪ ♪♪ And the thaw is a dangerous time, when benign-looking ice turn into the fangs of foreboding, indicators of change.

♪♪ It's a time to be extra careful.

Everyone is walking on glass.

[ Quacking ] ♪♪ [ Squawking ] The flamingos here now have performed the tricky balancing act of waiting out the winter to get the early pickings, while the rest of the flock migrated north to Argentina.

♪♪ But nature has its own timetable, no matter how hungry you are.

♪♪ And Solitaria is hungry.

She's burned up most of her body fat reserves for herself, and for her suckling cubs, so, she has to go out on a limb.

Most of the guanacos have moved to the far side of the frozen lake, just out of her territory.

The cubs are uneasy, unsure.

They've only ever seen the lake asleep, not rousing.

[ Crackling ] Cazadora needs reassuring.

It' not just the creaking ice beneath her feet.

This is very unfamiliar territory.

But if Solitaria and Cazadora feel it's fine, the other cubs will follow, but still eager not to linger on the groaning lake.

They're hesitant to go into someone else's land and risk offending.

Pumas are usually very respectful of boundaries.

[ Rumbling ] But Solitaria led them here because of a different scent in the thicket.

And well before the other cubs find it, too, Cazadora has proudly claimed the top spot on a frozen guanaco kill.

It's these stolen moments that get a family like this through the lean times, until the herds circle back into their territories.

♪♪ Whether the guanacos return or not now, Solitaria can't afford to get cut off on the wrong side of the lake, so after a quick feed, she tests the ice again.

The unsettling noises below their feet seem like they are coming from an ice monster, getting ready to swallow them up.

♪♪ It scares the cubs, and so it should.

The Sun has been shining for two days since they crossed and they were all a little lighter then.

♪♪ Her timing is perfect.

Within days, the melt has started.

The fairy-tale crystals of winter dance off out of sight and the lake shines with thecertainty that spring is coming.

♪♪ ♪♪ Chile straddles the Tropic of Capricorn and, at this time of the year, the Sun cuts a swath across the ice fields, warming the dark rocks, melting the cover off Torres del Paine, drop by drop.

♪♪ The glacier river breaks up.

The lake Solitaria and her cubs crossed breaks apart and disappears under an ever-increasingly raging torrent.

The ice from the mountains feedsvolumes of water into the river, warming it, changing it, changing the entire character of the place for everyone.

♪♪ A rare torrent duck fights the out-of-control wall of water, nearly swept away into oblivion.

But he knows a thing or two about how to survive in turbulent waters around him.

♪♪ In the foothills, away from the madness, prehistoric beasts emerge.

A rhea, that even the pumas might think twice about attacking.

Back in her territory, Solitaria tries to make sense of the sudden change.

There is always opportunity in change.

Her scent on the breeze means only one thing to a guanaco herd... [ Bleating ] ...run.

♪♪ As if winter is reluctant to give up its grip to summer, a sudden cold wind blows in across the Southern Ice Fields.

It snaps the landscape back into a blizzard, catching the cubs out in the open, down at the lake.

♪♪ ♪♪ The cold bites them in razor-sharp shards of ice, but besides huddling together, they can't move.

Solitaria left them to find food.

The only way she'll find them again easily after the dusting of snow will be if they stay where she left them.

It's hard, especially when the voices from the mountain turn from whispers to shouts.

[ Boom ] [ Rumbling ] New snow on top of old has created instability and that erupts into explosive avalanches.

♪♪ [ Boom ] [ Rumbling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Boom ] The cubs are safe up high.

But Solitaria could be anywhere.

Days later, there's still no sign of her.

The cubs found shelter, but a long way from where they were left.

[ Rumbling ] ♪♪ The condors venture out to scout, and find little of interest but a few small creatures swept up by the avalanche.

♪♪ A week later, La Roca arrives.

He's been patrolling, keeping the territory refreshed and safe.

There is something missing in this part of the valley.

The scent of Solitaria.

The cubs don't know their father.

To them, he is just a series of scent marks on the shrubs they come across, sometimes strong and fresh; at other times, just a whiff of his maleness under the snow.

When he moves off, they relax.

He won't save them, anyway, but they don't know how much of a threat he might be.

♪♪ There is a kind of nothingness when a mother's scent starts to fade.

[ Purring ] A quiet that fills the void, where a mother puma's calls should reverberate through the hills.

And it is Cazadora that first leaves and climbs to the hills to position to watch, just in case.

♪♪ ♪♪ Some say there are ghosts here, with breaths of laughter at our sentiments of loss.

♪♪ Cazadora still has so much to learn about surviving the whims of the ice mountains.

♪♪ ♪♪ It is usually the battle-scared male pumas that suddenly disappear from the foothills of Torres del Paine, these towers of cold blue that form the backdrop to every drama here.

Those messengers of the ancient gods glide above it all, many having seen decades of this episodic story of pumas play out again and again, with one common thread -- that the bloodlines continue.

Some of the cubs drift off.

Cazadora found at least one lesson that stuck... ...the art of finding discarded meat in the snow to scavenge.

But, one by one, her siblings wander away to uncertain futures.

Torres del Paine is actually at quite low altitude, so weather blows in constantly, swirling in the crags, trapped against the ice mountains.

[ Water lapping ] It refreshes the landscape and brings in new characters for condors to follow.

♪♪ [ Thunder rumbles ] Nature thrives on change, even though it may not be good for the individuals.

♪♪ By midsummer, avalanche time, again.

The guanacos have started to circle back into the valley.

This time, they're being followed.

♪♪ The turbulent lake territory has been visited by nomadic cats, but, for months, they have cycled in and out again, after the herds, just ghostly visionsagainst a ridge, or over a hill.

Since Solitaria's disappearance, though, the territory has been unclaimed.

It's given the guanacos and the season's chulengos a chance to thrive.

Perhaps, they've become a little too comfortable, not as used to that particular scent on the breeze.

♪♪ But this cat, also a nomad,knows how to disguise her scent, down at the lake's edge.

♪♪ She's different.

Young.

Experimental.

She's not terribly keen on the icy glacier water and very few cats in the world love being in water, anyway.

♪♪ But if a duck can do it, so can she.

♪♪ ♪♪ It's wet paws that seem to bother her most.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Groaning ] With heavy muscled bodies, Guanacos are actually strong swimmers, and choose a crossing with strong current.

♪♪ ♪♪ -[ Groans ] -[ Lows ] It may be that they've chosen this spot to wash away any following predators.

♪♪ It very nearly does.

♪♪ ♪♪ And then, her scent simply disappears.

♪♪ [ Rumbling ] It's a little confusing.

♪♪ She was obvious a moment ago.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Howl ] ♪♪ [ Groaning ] -[ Lows ] ♪♪ ♪♪ They've come here for another well-timed ritual -- the fighting for the right to mate -- and they choose wide-open plains for safety.

♪♪ [ Rumbling ] She can't get to them.

♪♪ So, she waits for them to make a mistake and come to her.

-[ Snuffle ] -[ Grumble ] ♪♪ And, soon enough, two competing guanaco males break the invisible barrier of safety and head up into the hills.

♪♪ Up here, it's to her advantage.

Rough terrain.

♪♪ [ Lowing ] ♪♪ She can slip and miss the kill.

♪♪ If a guanaco slips, he the kill.

A hunt is a complexity of skills, using the wind, terrain, when to hide, when to reveal and spring the chase.

But, suddenly, the key that triggers the hunt is her knowledge that a guanaco fleeing beyond the ridgeline runs off into an abyss.

♪♪ This is the moment.

[ Screech ] ♪♪ [ Screeching ] And it swings back downhill, to salvation, but the young puma has learned that an attack onto a guanaco's well-protected back is a hard task on the run.

But it's her use of the ridge as a technique that tells of her knowledge of this landscape.

She's hunted here before.

Her familiarity suddenly becomes clear -- she is 'The Beautiful Huntress,' La Bella Cazadora, one of the abandoned cubs, somehow having made it for months in the wilderness, all alone.

Cazadora, her efforts not particularly impressive to the guanaco herd that may recognize that she's a young cat, still learning her ways.

As she struts her way to Solitaria's old territory, her birth home, she's being watched.

A battle-scarred, but young, male, is interested in the scent Cazadora brings to the territory.

He's one of many young males contesting for the rights to her father, La Roca's, legacy, once he disappeared.

♪♪ She's not impressed, and uses the breeze at the lake to hide behind.

♪♪ If she does stay, this lakeside territory is the prime land in Torres del Paine.

♪♪ It is often sheltered from the incessant wind and, while it ruffles every coat here, a swirling wind plays havoc with a cat's plans for a hunt.

♪♪ At the same time, the southern wind lays down a carpet of ice in the high country.

♪♪ ♪♪ Cazadora hunts both, valleys and hillsides, depending on where the guanacos are moving.

♪♪ And so begins a phase of her life where she is on the go, day and night, finding the nooks and crannies she may have once known, but now needs to know intimately, for food and escape.

[ Grumble ] ♪♪ By the next snowfall, she's ready.

The heavy snow is her invisible blanket, but it creates its own problems for her.

She can hear the sounds of crashing heads, as the guanaco males continue their fighting, but the same snow that hides her, hides them.

They have an adaptation -- long eyelashes that keep the snowflakes out of their eyes.

[ Bleating ] ♪♪ [ Rattle ] ♪♪ The snow makes a particular crunching sound under her paws in this otherwise deadened soundscape.

So, her timing has to be just right.

[ Barks ] ♪♪ [ Screeching ] ♪♪ [ Yelping ] And, this time, it's a deadly throat hold, not a flaying grab at the back, that quickly dispatches the guanaco, silently.

It's an impressive kill for the young Cazadora.

She's pumped with adrenaline, not just because of the effort, but, now, she must hang on to her kill.

With all the young males around,some of them may have heard her.

♪♪ If not, if it's all for her, she'll have food in this freezer for weeks.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Each success is so much moreimportant as the winter sets in.

Temperatures drop.

Nights drag, for 16 hours or longer.

♪♪ For a puma to survive,she has only herself to rely on.

A bad day, an injury, and it can quickly turn into a downward spiral to starvation out here.

♪♪ And there it is.

A young male has followed the scent of fresh meat, or been following trail for other reasons.

♪♪ ♪♪ Whether hunger or romance, Cazadora has no interest in finding out, and slinks off into the blue night, giving up most of her reward for the incredible effort.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ If she's going to stay at the lake and own it, she won't go unnoticed for long.

♪♪ It's a strategic move.

♪♪ So, Cazadora simply leaves her territory.

♪♪ Her incursion is immediately noticed.

An older male in the adjoining territory, almost a third bigger.

She hasn't met the male before.

♪♪ Many solitary big cats relax territory boundaries when it comes to the business of courtship.

[ Growling ] Despite their differences, and lack of expertise in communicating, the two pumas, Cats of the Mountain, Lords of the Forest, Cats of God, or any other of the 40 names they are referred to across the Americas, finally agree on a common language.

♪♪ ♪♪ And so begins a week-long dance, at first tentative, testing, and then playful.

♪♪ ♪♪ He's dominant, but she's as dangerous, armed with teeth and claws.

[ Snarl ] -[ Grumble ] ♪♪ -[ Hiss, grumble ] ♪♪ [ Romantic tune plays ] It's a tango in which these two pumas lose themselves, as they elope into the foothills, with confetti to celebrate their nuptials.

[ Rattling ] Season after season, this tightly bound relationship between the pumas and their prey, and the condors, thrives in this unique place on the planet, with the elegance of perfect harmony at the lake's edge.

[ Squeak ] ♪♪ ♪♪ By spring, three months later,Cazadora is queen of her valley, one of the richest hunting grounds in Torres.

♪♪ ♪♪ The guanacos come here constantly, for the herbs and shrubs that survive the gusts of icy wind and flourish the minute there is respite and sunshine.

♪♪ She is sleek, her stride confident.

[ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ Her kill rate has increased, but now, slightly heavier, she relies on an old lesson her mother taught her -- to follow the birds. [ Screech ] [ Rattling ] [ Chirping ] [ Rumble ] A kill requires an intense burst of energy.

It's taxing on the body.

But stealing someone else's kill comes with a high risk as well.

Scavenging a kill that belongs to someone else makes her very cautious.

For good reason.

When the owner comes down the hill, behind her, he's clearly indignant.

♪♪ He's another young male, not her regular stalker, and dangerous for her.

♪♪ [ Grumble ] ♪♪ ♪♪ And then, something strange happens, a strategic body language that may just win her some time.

♪♪ She simply ignores him.

When she turns her back on him and carries on feeding on kill, she sends a signal that he's not important, not a threat.

And his response?

Is to be submissive and beg to share.

♪♪ Cazadora's snub has carried a lot of meaning.

♪♪ [ Grumbling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Growling ] And then, out of nowhere, she's had enough of his manners and sees him off.

[ Snarling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ The status quo can't last.

Before he regains his confidence, Cazadora leaves.

She's become more unsettled recently, not comfortable in one spot for too long.

♪♪ Her scent oozes down the river.

Guanacos don't distinguish between a puma on a personal quest and one that is on the hunt.

♪♪ They'd rather just keep her in sight, no matter what she's up to.

Like her mother, she's claimed the territory that straddles the glacier river.

♪♪ ♪♪ It scared her as a cub.

The avalanches are now a constant backdrop.

She now knows it well.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ When she goes up to the caves of conglomerate rock, peppered with pebbles, it's to her secret place, and she comes here for a specific reason.

♪♪ Four small, well-camouflaged reasons, [ Calls ] just weeks old.

Exactly like Solitaria, Cazadora has brought four kittens into the world and her single call is all the encouragement they need.

[ Tender tune plays ] ♪♪ And this is what the condors are probably used to.

Despite one disaster, the bloodline of this special puma family continues.

♪♪ Immediately, one kitten starts the age-old process of endearing itself to its mother.

Only one of these cubs will make it to their mother's age, so every single advantage they can earn now -- be it competition for milk, for meat, for attention, for learning those special skills she can provide -- will help them make it.

This one cub may well be Cazadora's legacy.

[ Rumble, bleat ] And they are the neighboring male's legacy, as he gazes toward their valley.

Their father may stay a distant figure, but his presence will protect them from marauding young males in the future.

♪♪ ♪♪ But their future is now mostly about this next moment of their lives, and how they learn from their mother.

♪♪ ♪♪ It is about how kittens watch their mother's every move and what they take in about the world around them, how they blend their instincts and their lessons.

♪♪ It will be about seeing that nervous tail twitch as she plans out a hunt in her head.

♪♪ They'll be taught about the eternal tensions between the eager and the wary.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Grumble ] Ardent students.

♪♪ The musty smell of guanaco on the breeze... ♪♪ ...making the mistake of walking downwind.

♪♪ They'll learn to pay more attention to a lone guanaco on the ridges because that intense interest will be in her body language.

♪♪ ♪♪ These are the things that Cazadora will pass on, as the long line of puma mentors did before her... ♪♪ ...until the lessons turn into instinct.

♪♪ And they will move like mercury, focused on two things -- the moment, and the future.

[ Screeching ] ♪♪ [ Screeching ] ♪♪ But the one thing they can never know about that future is when it might come to an abrupt and decisive end and change the lives of these precious puma bloodlines forever.

♪♪ For them, nothing else matters, and these are the things we should all consider in these last wild places.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪

© 2021 WNET. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.