Not a pet…

Guinea pig (cuy, in Peru) is a much prized delicacy in Peru, eaten on special occasions, such as parties, celebrations, or festivals, or even as a treatment for a particular malady. Our tour guide repeatedly emphasized to us, “you turned our food into your pets; we did not turn your pets into our food”.  In fact, wild guinea pigs, which can be still be found in farm fields in the Lake Titicaca area, and I suspect elsewhere in Peru also, were a favorite food item of the Incas back in the 1400-1500s.

Peruvian woman preparing guinea pig for her family

A Peruvian woman gets ready to prepare fresh guinea pig for her guests — us! After humanely euthanizing the animal, she removes the hair and the guts, then places it in the frying pan on her wood-fired stove to cook.

Peruvian woman preparing guinea pig for her family

Divided among about 16 people, there is not much more than a mouthful of prepared guinea pig to taste, but it proves to be quite mild — just like chicken!

Guinea pigs are farmed in Peru today, much like you would raise chickens.  They sometimes occupy the attic of a house, or larger numbers are raised in guinea pig barns, provided with fresh greens from the field daily, and their manure collected to fertilize gardens.  They are not related to pigs, but are rodents native to the South American Andes area.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

We visited a farmer who started with 25 guinea pigs and now has a population of 300 he is raising to market in the barn built just for this purpose.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

In the interior of the guinea pig barn, pens separate individual families and weaned offspring from each other so there is minimal fighting.  The guinea pigs are provided with fresh greens daily, but don’t seem to require water in their diet.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

Farm-raised guinea pigs are white, tan or brown, or brown and white, with very soft fur, although their wild ancestor has more of a hoary, grizzled coat of rough hair.  They reach market size at about 3 months of age.

Wild guinea pig, Peru

Wild guinea pig from lake Titicaca.  Note the difference in the fur and eye color.  Selective breeding has changed the appearance of the animal.

Guinea pig farming provides a good income for farmers; the animals might sell for $8-10 a piece, are marketed to restaurants as far away as Lima, thus raising the farmers’ monthly income substantially.

The preferred preparation of guinea pig is roasted in a wood-fired oven, but families without oven facilities can bring their meats to a “Baker” whose large capacity wood-fired oven can handle baking breads, meats, etc. to order on a daily basis.

Peruvian baker with roasted guinea pig

A third generation “Baker” with an order of fresh roasted Guinea pig ready for pick up.  

Guinea pig is so popular, you can even find it for sale on street corners in larger towns.

roast guinea pig for sale in Peru

A young girl advertising roast guinea pig available at a local restaurant hopped on our bus briefly.

An unwanted invader

The European Hare is one of the most widespread mammals on earth, due not only to its ability to thrive and reproduce in a wide variety of habitats, but also to its intentional introduction to new geographical areas by humans.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

We saw this European hare in a small farming community on the shore of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

For example, 36 hares were intentionally released in central Argentina in 1888 and just 20 years later, they were so widespread in Argentina, they were considered a major agricultural pest. Another intentional release of hares in southern Chile in 1896 may be the source of animals that have subsequently invaded Bolivia, and more recently, the southern tip of Peru, where they were first discovered as recently as 2002.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

A dozen or so hares scampered through the brushy fields intermixed with small crops, fleeing as soon as they saw us.

The mixed grassy field-small crop production areas, broken up by thickets and stone walls are perfect for this little invader, which seems to do well from sea level to high altitude zones.  The only barrier to its rather rapid rate of dispersal in South America so far is the humid and complex tropical Amazon region and densely populated urban areas.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It’s brown, tan, black and white blotchy fur pattern blends well with rocky areas of the same color, giving the hare some ability hide in plain sight.

The spread of European hares in these small farming communities where plowing, planting, and harvesting is all done by hand on small plots would have a great impact on farmers’ yields.

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca, Peru

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca are ripe for harvest by fast multiplying European hares.

In Argentina, hares are a favorite prey of Puma (cougar), but top cat predators are absent in this area of Lake Titicaca.  It’s possible that avian predators in this area might take young hares, but adults are large, long-legged, fast runners with great endurance for escaping predators.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Run, rabbit, run…

So for now, the European hare has an open niche to exploit, from coastal to high altiplano farms and fields in Peru.

the road to Puno

We set out from Cusco to the city of Puno in the southern part of Peru, where the Andean plateau widens and rises to about 12,500 feet and continues as a wide expanse into Bolivia and Chile.  This is the second largest and highest plateau in the world, after that in Tibet.

Andean plateau on the road to Puno, Peru

Andean plateau on the road to Puno, Peru

Along the road to the La Raya pass at 14,200 feet, wide expanses of green are broken up by small agricultural plots of beans, corn, quinoa, and other vegetables.  Large herds of llamas and alpacas, a few cattle, and some sheep are more prominent here than they were in the lower valleys near Cusco.

Andean plateau on the road to Puno, Peru

Llama herd on the road to Puno, Peru

Alpaca herd, Andean plateau, Peru

This herd of alpacas was tended by a single herdsman, without the help of fences or dogs to control the herd.

Train to Puno at La Raya pass, Peru

A train runs between Cusco and Puno over the 14,300 foot pass. Talk about taking your breath away…

The scenery on either side of the pass is as dramatic as any mountain scenery anywhere, especially realizing that the base of the mountains here is 12-14,000 feet.  Only the most hearty and well acclimated can survive and prosper in this thin air, where the oxygen content is just 60% of what it is at sea level.

La Raya pass, Andean plateau, Peru

I’m guessing these peaks might be as much as 19-20,000 feet.  It’s a stunning landscape.

Chilly Chinchilla

Long-tailed furry little mammals leaping long distances between the rocks at Machu Picchu were a surprise.  Their color and body shape hid them well between the rocks.

Chinchilla hiding in rocks

What is this? A picture of some rocks? No there is a chinchilla in the middle of the frame.

Chinchilla hiding in rocks

Long ears, long tail, and about the size of a rabbit, Chinchillas were highly valued for their soft, dense fur.

Two species of Chinchilla are native to the Andes mountains of South America.  Once widespread throughout the higher elevations in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, they were over hunted for their fur, and now are found only in remote parts of Chile.  Chinchillas have the most dense fur of any land mammal, most likely an adaptation to the cold temperatures of their high elevation habitats.  As a result they overheat very easily at moderate temperatures and are difficult to keep in captivity.

They are highly social, living in large groups or herds, in rocky crevices in the mountains, which makes them difficult to spot as well as capture.  They look like easy prey for raptors, but have the unusual habit of spraying urine and releasing clumps of fur when attacked.

the llamas of Machu Picchu

We were fortunate to see the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu on an almost clear day for at least two hours before heavy rain settled over the area.  I was surprised to find so many llamas wandering through the site, but they created great photo opportunities.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Llamas are quite social and usually occur in groups. This one must have been entranced with the scenery.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Llamas come in a variety of colors, from white to brown to black to spotted, probably as a result of selective breeding. Their wild relatives, the vicuña and guanaco, have uniform brown and white color patterns.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

The gestation period for llamas is 11.5 months, but female young develop quickly and are ready to breed in one year, while young males take as much as three years to become fully mature.

Llamas actually originated in North America, and migrated to South America about 3 million years ago when the Panamanian land bridge was established.  Today, there are no wild llamas, since they were domesticated soon after humans reached South America about 10,000 years ago and began to do more farming than hunting and gathering.  Some say the conversion to agriculture would not have been possible without the use of llama dung as fertilizer.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Like other members of the camel family, llamas are grass eaters and digest their food in a multi-compartmented stomach with the aid of bacteria there.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

Two pair of Incisors on top and bottom help them crop grass close to its roots with a yank of their head as they bite down. Nice long eyelashes too.

Llamas at Machu Picchu

What a beautiful place to live…

Monkey faces

La Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island) is a rescue operation for the thousands of baby monkeys sold in local markets as pets or for bush meat.  The island is about 20 miles down the Amazon river from Iquitos, where many of the animals have been rescued.  Once rehabilitated to the wild, the monkeys are free to roam the 450 hectare island, which has been planted with a variety of fruit- and nut-bearing trees.  A few of the local monkey faces…

Dusky titi monkey

Dusky titi monkey

Dusky titi monkey

Dusky titi monkey

Saddle-back Tamarin

Saddle-back Tamarin

Saddle-back Tamarin

Saddle-back Tamarin

Wooly Monkey

Wooly Monkey

Wooly Monkey

Wooly Monkey

Yellow-bellied spider monkey

Yellow-bellied spider monkey hanging by his fifth appendage.

Over 200 monkeys have been rescued so far, but the Center estimates that hundreds of thousands of monkeys enter the pet trade each year.

River dolphins

The Amazon river is a vast and impressive highway, carrying people and goods to and from Ecuador to Peru to Brazil.  It is also home to hundreds of fish, amphibian, and caiman species, as well as the pink river dolphin.

Amazon river dolphin

A river dolphin breaks the water for a look around before diving back down

River dolphins in the Amazon are the largest of the fresh water dolphins, with males weighing up to 500 pounds and growing to almost 9 feet in length.  There is pronounced sexual dimorphism in this species, but unlike other whales and dolphins, the females are about one-third smaller than the males, instead of larger.

Amazon river dolphin

Unlike dolphins at Sea World, these dolphins did not exhibit any gymnastic leaps and flips for us.  Their heads barely broke the surface and we could barely see their dorsal fin and tails as they dove again.

Males have pinkish bodies and often show battle scars from competition with other males for females during the breeding season.

Amazon river dolphin

A bite out of the dorsal fin indicates this individual may have seen some battles with other males.

Amazon river dolphin-

Males get pinker with age, females and juveniles are gray.  Older dolphins may fade to white.  Photo from

The huge melon on their forehead is fatty tissue that helps them direct their sonar echolocating beam.  River dolphins emit a small amplitude click that helps them locate nearby objects and prey in the muddy Amazon water.  A longer beam like that emitted by oceanic dolphins would echo back too much confusing information in such a visually obstructed environment.

More than 53 species of fish, river turtles, and crabs are food for river dolphins, with an individual sometimes sharing food with another.  Dolphins may hunt with other species like river otters, putting increased pressure on their prey in a cooperative hunt, but dolphins and otters tend to specialize on different species in the hunt.

Boldly Invisible

A continuation of the discussion in the last post of why black accent or coloration is so widespread, especially in small birds…there are still more questions to answer.

For example, you would think that a boldly striped, black and white animal would be an easy target to spot against the homogeneous green or gold African savanna.


But how many zebra do you actually see here?

Disruptive patterns of black and white break up the outline of an animal’s body, making it difficult to detect them in a complex background.  Maybe this is why a herd of zebra can be referred to as a “dazzle”?

Looking at a single chickadee against a plain white or tan or gray background makes them standout because of their bold black and white markings.

Black-capped chickadee-

But finding them in their more typical, complex background of myriad tree branchlets and leaves is much more difficult.

chickadee family-no highlights-

How many chickadees hiding in the bushes?  They blend in well with highlights of snow on branches or in the background, deep shade on unlit branches, and the tan of leaves and bark.

chickadee family-with highlights-

Here they are!  Highlighted with a little illumination in Lightroom photo editor.

Birds that live in complex environments like the dappled shade of a forest, or the complex vegetation of a wetland or grassland, often have complex feather patterns (especially dark and light) that more or less blend with their background, or at the least, make them difficult to detect until they move.  Some of the boldest black and white patterns, like the stripes on a Kildeer’s breast, actually distract one’s eye from the outline of the bird’s body.


Until she moves, mama Kildeer isn’t obvious in this marshy wetland. I didn’t even notice her chick standing silently on her right until I was editing the photo for a blog post.

Some birds emphasize camouflage even more by combining spots of white or bands of dark and light on their feathers.


A sleeping Barred Owl has pretty good camouflage in this leafless Amur Maple forest.


Stripes down its breast and spots on the wings and back of the Barred Owl help break up the solid outline of its body.

brown creeper-

The blotchy brown and white plumage of Brown Creepers lets them hide in plain sight on the rough bark of mature trees where they forage in crevices for prey.

So, one of the answers to why so many birds, especially those residents that live in the northern temperate forests all year, adopt splotchy patterns of black or brown and white plumage is that they maximize their ability to hide in plain sight by being boldly invisible.

Spike and the boys

“Spike and the boys” — it’s not a new band, but a herd of White-tailed deer bucks that roam the backyard and beyond.  There are three mature (big) bucks and three first-year bucks with tiny antler spikes protruding from their foreheads — hence “spikes”.  They are browsing for anything edible in the backyard on this cold, snowy day.

first year white-tailed buck (spikes)

Two of the three spikes were doing a little playful head butting in the wildflower garden.

first year white-tailed buck (spike)

Number 3 of the trio ambled over to see what all the fun was about, chewing something as he ambled.

white-tailed buck-

Meanwhile the big boys were serious about finding something nutritious to eat. They have been through this long winter drought of good forage before.

Males lose 20-30 % of their body weight during the fall rut, as they follow the does around waiting for their opportunities to mate with them.  That allows little time to eat, and consequently, they may enter the winter period of low food availability with less fat than they will eventually need to survive.  Their winter browse on evergreens, leaves, and shrubs may not sustain them completely either, and they may continue to lose weight throughout the winter, despite trying to reduce their metabolism by being less active and lowering their body temperature and heart rate: lessons that the “spikes” will need to learn quickly.

white-tailed buck-

One of the big boys has already lost a portion of his rack on the right side.  It must get tricky maneuvering those irregular curves on his head through the dense branches of the forest undergrowth.

white-tailed bucks

Spike and the boys suddenly come to full attention, looking intently at the wetland valley below the brim of the hill. There are dogs and people walking down there.

white-tailed buck running away

And off they go, bounding out of sight, raising that white tail flag to indicate to the others that it’s time to flee.

let sleeping foxes lie

Morning coffee in hand, I ventured out to a somewhat chilly “sunroom” porch this morning and found a red fox sleeping nearby.

red fox-sleeping in snow

Morning light hasn’t made it to the backyard yet, and the thermometer on the backdoor says -10 F.

So I sat, camera in hand, and waited for the fox to wake up — for an hour and a half.  It was a long nap, perhaps needed after a long night of hunting mice, or the like.  It got boring watching the fox nap, so I opened the window for a close-up, clearer telephoto shot.

red fox-sleeping in snow

Curled up, fur fluffed up, nose tucked under tail for protection — the fox is quite comfortable at this frigid temperature.  This seems to be the typical posture of canids (dogs) sleeping in the cold.

artic fox sleeping-curious

An arctic fox sleeping in a similar position (Curious Expeditions on Flickr photostream).  Note the nice pocket of insulating snow the animal has created around it.  Arctic Fox can tolerate temperature extremes of -70 F without shivering.

wolf sleeping-Jeffrey Lepore-Science Source

A gray wolf using the same heat conservative posture while sleeping in snow (photo by Jeffrey Lepore/Science Source)

red fox-

Finally awake, now that the temperature is all the way up to O F. It must be time to get on with the day’s activities.

red fox-eating snow

First on the agenda, eat some snow — replenish some body water lost in the nightly adventure.  I could see the fox biting chunks, chewing, and licking the edges of its sleeping area.

red fox-eating snow

Licking the moisture off its muzzle

red fox-

Stretching — this is a signal that the fox will either lie down for another nap, or take off in a few minutes.

red fox-

Yawn — wow, that is a huge gape between its jaws, big enough to bite something pretty chunky. Too bad the woodchucks are hibernating.

red fox-

Looking over at me, as I tap on the window, wishing the window were open instead of closed, so I could get a better photo.

red fox-stretching

A final stretch out, and the fox is off to make its rounds of the backyard.

red fox