Protecting the Endangered Tuco-Tuco
Fortin Chacabuco: a Tuco-Tuco Stronghold.
A Haven for Life
By Philip Przybyszewski
As the strong breeze meets the rising sun on the expansive dry plains of Patagonia, a curious little creature juts its furry head out from its burrow. This miniscule, gopher-like species of rodent is a longtime native of Patagonia called a social tuco-tuco (Ctenomys sociabilis), and is but one vital part of the vibrant ecosystem of the Patagonian plain.
Several other small furry heads soon follow, twitching their noses towards the skyscraping mountains, picking up the scents of grasses carried by the relentless flow of the breeze. This colony of tuco-tucos, given this name by the distinctive, birdlike tuc-tuc-tuc they sound off to one another, is one of several making their burrows beneath the dusty soil and feeding on the native grasses.
Although this tuco-tuco seems to be but another small rodent species at the bottom of the food chain, their adaptive skills are of intrigue to biologists. Their namesake, sociabilis, is the key to understanding why such a small species lacking much genetic diversity has survived in the harsh Patagonian plains for such a long while. Scientists are stunned by the fact that the social tuco-tuco population has persisted for thousands of years after they were outcompeted by other species and their genetic diversity was minimized. This unique rodent’s biological edge is its sociability, where each tuco-tuco’s familial manner of behaving towards the other tuco-tucos, even sleeping together in families and caring for one another, that fills burrows beneath the Patagonian grasses.
Despite the stunning resistance to natural pressures, the social tuco-tuco’s way of life is fundamentally at risk by a threat like no other: us.
Today, the social tuco-tuco is a critically endangered species and scientists from The Nature Conservancy and from Patagonia are conducting research in Fortin Chacabuco, where a large proportion of the species reside, to gauge the effect of human activity and of livestock grazing on their habitat.
And this land holds many more secrets, according to Miguel Christie, Patagonian naturalist and one of the scientists that first discovered the social tuco-tuco in Fortin Chacabuco and part of the surrounding Nahuel Huapi National Park, in 1985.
“There is so much to discover still. New species of plants, rodents, lizards, and amphibians are discovered regularly. We all know there is a lot to do still and understand about this part of the world”, says Miguel Christie. “When you tell people about the incredible richness of this land, they are surprised. They look at you as if you were talking about another planet! And it’s wonderful to come and see all this. You know, some people go to the cinema to relax, I go to Patagonia”.