The Atacama Desert is a 994-mile strip of parched earth on Chile's northwest coast. It is one of the driest places on Earth. According to "The Encyclopedia of Earth," there are some areas that have never received a drop of rain in recorded history. The handful of animals that cling to life in this harsh place are extremely tenacious survivors.
Landscape and Climate
Atacama is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the east by the Andes Mountains. It has relatively cool temperatures in spite of being near the equator. Although the ruins of the Incan fortress Pukara de Quitor are evidence that the region was once more hospitable, today Atacama's landscape is barren and nearly lifeless. Features consist of loose sand, craters and rocks. The nearly nonexistent precipitation and high mineral content of the soil make it impossible for plants to grow in the desert's interior. Even fungi, bacteria and insects have a hard time in the harsh interior. The few organisms that survive are found near the coastal river valleys and the shore.
The sturdy llama is one of the camel's South American cousins. Domesticated by the natives, llamas have been used as beasts of burden for centuries. They can be loaded with up to 22.7 Kilogram and travel up to 20 miles a day, even in the treacherous terrain of the Andes Mountains. An overloaded llama, however, will refuse to work and may even lie down and throw a temper tantrum involving spitting, hissing and kicking. Llamas also provide hide for leather, excrement for fuel and wool for rugs, rope and cloth. When they die they provide meat for their owners. They can survive on a wide range of plants and very little water.
Two of Atacama's hardy residents are the llama's cousins, the alpaca and the vicuna. The Incas domesticated the alpaca as a source of wool before the Spanish arrived but they were later crossbred with the llama, which reduced the availability of alpaca wool. They were exported to Europe after Sir Titus Salt discovered how to make cloth from their wool. They are raised in Canada, the United States and some other non-Andean countries. Only 30 inches tall, the vicuna is the smallest member of the camel family. It has silky wool that the Incas reserved for royal robes. Unlike llamas and alpacas, vicunas have never been domesticated. Wool producers collect wool from wild herds. Other Atacama mammals include the huemel deer, the grey fox, the grey mouse and the viscasha, a relative of the chinchilla.
The many bird species found in Atacama include the giant hummingbird, the lesser rhea, the Andean swallow, the black-throated flower piercer, the Puna miner, the tamarugo conebill and three species of flamingo. Some rare species include the white-throated earthcreeper, slender-billed finch, Chilean woodstar and thick-billed minor. Birds found along the coast include boobies, pelicans, gulls, terns, cormorants, oystercatchers and penguins.
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