A walk in the temperate rainforests of Chile is like a journey into the deep past: a world of ferns, giant conifers and lichens enshrouded in fog and inhabited by tiny mammals that survived the age of giants. The pudú (Pudu puda) lives in this dense green world of thick foliage and misty air. This minuscule deer is the world’s smallest―it is only a bit larger than a small dog.
The Mapuche people have inhabited the forests and coasts of austral South America for millennia, and their language ―mapudungun or “the language of the Earth”― is where the pudú’s name comes from. In Mapuche lore, the pudú is guided by sparrows, whose songs alert it of nearby predators. Myth is often the manifestation of deep memory: as in legend, the pudú quietly slipped out of the Pleistocene leaving its gargantuan predators behind.
Recently, a group of scientist from the Universidad Austral de Chile discovered a 13,350 year old pudú fossil outside of its current range, revealing new information on life in Pleistocene South America. The ancient pudú lived in a rather different climate than the lush Validivian forests. During the colder Pleistocene, southern Chile was more like modern day northern Patagonia, with open forests, grasses and occasional thickets of conifers such as Chilean myrtle (Luma apiculata) and alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides), which can live over 3,000 years. The pudú lived alongside megafauna, such as gomphotheres, Darwin’s beloved giant sloth, Macrauchenica pathachonica (an odd mix of llama and elephant), and South American giant short-faced bears (Arctotherium tarijense), along with camelids such as guanacos (Lama guanicoe). Life would not have been easy for the tiny deer, as they were also prey to a variety of megacarnivores such as Smilodon and the Pleistocene South-American Jaguar (Panthera onca mesembrina). However, it was micromammals such as the pudú and the monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) that survived into the Holocene, quietly munching on leaves in the depths of the misty forests.
The tiny southern pudú (pudu puda) now inhabits southern Chile and adjacent parts of Argentina. It stands 35 to 45 cm tall at the shoulder and weighs between 6 to 13 kilograms: just a bit larger than a pug! Males have unforked antlers 3 to 9 centimeters long, which are shed annually. Solitary and secretive, the pudú has little social interaction outside mating. Mostly herbivorous, the pudús use trails in the rainforests in search of vines, shrubs, herbs, ferns, and fallen fruit. Their small stature can be a problem when obtaining food, and they have evolved various behaviour to make the task easier: pudús may stand on their front legs and bend branches, climb on low branches or stumps, or peel saplings with their teeth or antlers.
Despite their small size, pudús are as aggressive as larger deer: they defend their home ranges to the point of killing other pudús that encroach on their territory. Both male and females also engage in complex fighting behavior which includes head-butting, jumping, biting, and thrashing with the front legs. They have even developed specialised defecation in their efforts to guard their lairs and trails: they will leave mounds of particularly scented dung when encountering another pudús scent mark in their home range.
The southern pudú is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN red list as a result of decades of poaching and illegal collection for zoos, along with habitat conversion, competition with introduced deer, and depredation by domestic animals such as dogs. Action is being taken to conserve pudús, such as captive breeding, radio tracking, and habitat protection. However, pudú populations are declining and there is much work to be done to ensure this tiny Twilight Beast lives on into the Anthropocene.
Michelle María Early Capistrán (@EarlyCapistran)
Edited by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)
A unique song about the Pudu can be heard here.
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