Mammals of the Sibinacocha Watershed

(Vicugna vicugna)

An Extreme Environment

The high-elevation grasslands of the Andean Altiplano are among the least-studied biological ecosystems in the world. Extreme elevation, low oxygen levels, rugged terrain, and huge daily temperature changes create one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Species living in this region have had to adapt to these harsh conditions resulting high levels of endemism (species that are found nowhere else) and small, isolated populations leaving them vulnerable to growing pressure from increased human activity and rapid climate change. Conservation plans are needed to protect these populations from growing threats, however, very little is known about even the most basic natural history, ecology, and distribution of many of these species, making conservation efforts extremely difficult. The Lake Sibinacocha watershed and the surrounding mountains in the Cordillera Vilcanota provide a unique opportunity to study the mammalian community of this fragile environment.

(Lagidium peruanum)

Adapting To A Changing Climate

The ecosystem of the Cordillera Vilcanota, including the Sibinacocha Watershed, is driven by glaciers. They provide a continuous, dependable, year-round source of fresh water that sustains critical wetlands, the key to life in this otherwise arid landscape. The greatest long-term threat to this region is rapid climate change. As glaciers recede, the amount of fresh water available is reduced. If they disappear completely, the only source of fresh water is seasonal snow melt, not enough to sustain the ecosystem. Native populations of plants and animals must either adapt to changing conditions or move to more suitable habitat. Species living at lower elevations can move to higher elevations as habitats shift, however, species living at the highest elevations may have nowhere else to go.

In the Sibinacocha Watershed, there are two groups of mammals: 1) larger carnivores and ungulates that are able to move long distances to seek out adequate habitat and resources, and; 2) smaller rodents that are restricted to isolated talus slopes due to a limited ability to disperse. These two groups are intimately linked. Rodents provide the prey base for smaller carnivores and are also important seed dispersers thereby impacting available food for other herbivores. Determining how both groups respond to the long-term threat of climate change and more immediate threats of habitat loss and degradation, poaching, and unregulated tourism is key to their survival.