Survivors of the extreme: wildlife of the Salar de Uyuni

The Salar de Uyuni is told to have the most beautiful views in South America. This large salt flat (the largest in the world) definitely left a very vivid impression on us: it is the wildest and most colorful place we have ever seen. Traveling around the Salar de Uyuni is like going through a series of incredible paintings. As every other tourist, we were awed by the sheer beauty of the landscapes but the biologist in us was curious to see what kind of creatures could survive in this arid place.

Made of salt, sand or rocks, the salt flats and their surroundings indeed appear desolate. And yet some plants and animals have evolved to withstand the extremely tough and dry conditions. If you ever have the chance to find yourself in these remote regions of the world, open your eyes and look around you to find the extraordinary wildlife in the Salar de Uyuni.

Salar de Uyuni

A tour of the Salar typically lasts three days and includes the iconic salt flat, the Chiguana, Dali and Siloli desert as well as the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve with its high-altitude lakes, hot springs and geysers. A little trick to see more wildlife on the way? Mention to the driver you are interested in it: they know best about the area and can help you find what you are looking for!

Vicuña

The Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) is the wild, smaller and more elegant relative of the llama. Long considered sacred by the Incas, the estimated two million of vicuñas that roamed the Andes of South America almost disappeared in the twentieth century after having been heavily hunted for their fine and beautiful coat. Their fluffy reddish wool is not only pretty: it is the finest wool in the world and is perfect to keep the vicuñas warm in the wind-swept high altitudes plains where they live. Luckily, extensive conservation actions targeting the vicuñas have led to a recovery of the species, and you are likely to see one along the way. We have seen Vicuñas in multiple places in the area, provided there was at least some grass (on which they feed) and enough water for them to drink daily.

Viscacha

As we peer into the Chiguana desert from the car, it seems we have entered a land of fire. Under the bright blue sky, the landscape is barren and entirely covered in orange sand. Not a drop of water, not a plant in sight. Yet, it is worth looking among the rocks spread over the landscape for you may find a colony of Southern Viscachas (Lagidium viscacia)! This strange animal, which looks like a crossing between the giant chinchilla and the long-tailed rabbit, feeds on grasses, mosses and lichens growing on the stones. With no water to be found in the desert, viscachas can survive solely on the water contained in their food. Well camouflaged in their surroundings, quietly perched on the rocks, they may be difficult to find at first but it is a rewarding sight: cute and laid-back, they look oddly familiar and strangely exotic.

Flamingos

The Andean lagoons of the National Reserve are breathtaking. The pastel colors are so pure under the infinity of the sky while the mountains offer the perfect dramatic background. Blue, white, red, green, color is everywhere and yet, the ensemble is so harmonious. The water is speckled with pink dots: dozens or even hundreds of flamingos are quietly walking through the lake, their beak cleaving the smooth surface.

There are three species of flamingo occurring in the area: the James’ Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi), the Andean Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus), and the Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis). The latter, with yellow eyes and red knees, is much less coomon than the two other species. There is an easy way to distinguish the James’ flamingo from the Andean Flamingo: take a closer look at their beak and at the color of their legs. The James’ flamingo has a distinctive red patch around its eye and pink legs while the Andean flamingo has a much blacker beak and yellow legs (when they are not covered in black mud, of course).

Flamingos are highly adapted to live and feed in salty lakes: they can excrete the overload of salt through glands located in their nostrils and they are able to drink the (almost) boiling water from the geysers, which often are the only sources of freshwater available to them! With their long legs and bright pink color, they can look goofy when they stare at you with their large beaks, but you can only love them.

Other birds

In and around the Salar de Uyuni, very few places offer enough food resources and water for animals to thrive. The rocky ‘islands’ of the salt flats and the lagoons located at high altitudes therefore represent oases of life in the inhospitable landscape. The most conspicuous inhabitants of the area are of course the birds and we were delighted to meet some of the species typically found in the Andes.

Lost in the middle of the largest salt flat in the world, stands the Isla Incuahuasi (or Isla Pescado as it is sometimes called). It is impossible to be prepared to the stunning view you get from atop the island: all around and as far as the eye can see, the ground is almost painfully white. In the distance, mountains seem to be floating in the bright blue sky. These are undoubtedly among the most striking views in South America. Amazingly, this oasis of life is covered by huge Pascana Tree Cacti (Echinopsis atacamensis pascana) of up to 12 meters tall and 700 years old. Set on the remains of an old volcano, the island is made of petrified corals which used to live in the sea that was once there. Thanks to the presence of plants, other animals can survive on the island and the most common one is the beautiful Black-Hooded Sierra Finch (Phrygilus atriceps).

When facing the lagoons, it is tempting to get lost in the beauty of the landscape and the grace of the flamingos. It is however the best place to look for the other birds living around! Fluttering on land are all sorts of passerines such as the Andean Negrito (Lessonia oreas), the Red-Backed and Mourning Sierra Finch (Phrygilus dorsalis and fruticeti), the Bright-Rumped Yellowfinch (Sicalis uropygialis), the Cordilleran Canastero (Asthenes modesta) and the Rufous-Naped Ground-Tyrant (Muscisaxicola rufiventris). With their feet in the water, often close to the shores, are Puna Plovers (Charadrius alticola), Baird’ Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii) and the elegant Andean Avocet (Recurvirostra andina). Finally, you may be lucky to spot Andean Geese (Chloephaga melanoptera), Puna Tinamous (Tinamotis pentlandi), Puna Miners (Geositta punensis), Andean Gull (Larus serranus) and the Grey-Breasted Seedsnipe (Thinocorus orbignyianus).

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