Roaming the haunts of the Aguará Guazú
by Rebecca Greenberg
Chaco, Argentina, 11:45 AM.
I shove my clipboard under my arm to roll up my sleeves and try not to wish I was wearing a t-shirt; we are in a momentary lapse from the mosquitos, but I’ve learned not to push my luck. The rhythmic splash and flatulent squelch of our every step breaks the silence of the palms. I pause on a foundering islet. Beside my mud-caked boot is a single track. It’s a bit like a dog’s, but the toes loosely encircle the central pad, cómo pétalos, as Lucía says. A large smudge at the top reveals the fusion of the two central toepads, a trait unique among canids. Two weeks ago I cried wolf at every dogprint. Now the tracks feel like accomplices, revealing themselves between the shoulder-high grasses of a meadow, or appearing miraculously intact in the cowpath of a monte, fine earthen membranes in petrified bloom beside the gargantuan, deep-sunken cloves that batter the narrow trail.
This is the thing with the maned wolf, or aguará guazú, as it is here called. With a flaming coat, erectile black mane and the general look of a red fox on stilts, its presence here is just as mythical as its appearance. The Argentine Gran Chaco composes the southern margin of its range, the bulk of the species living in the Brazilian Cerrado. Furthermore, the aguará roams many Chaco macrohabitats, from esteros (swamps and marshes) to montes (low forests) to the palmar-pastizal (palm savanna) such as the one we were wading in, the signature look of the ecoregion. The canid’s use of each of these zones remains obscure. Therein the opportunity for me, when I asked Bahía Blanca University biologist Lucía Soler if I could join her summer research efforts. A few months later, thanks to a Weissman Grant from Harvard College, I was in the thick of Argentina’s most remote province with a local research team. To find scats and tracks, we interviewed local chaqueños about where they’d last seen the aguará. Most had never met a North American and would smile or exclaim in disbelief as I introduced myself. Contemplating their way of life, I felt the same wonder. Drying laundry festooned houses the size of dorm rooms. Water was heaved from wells. On the dirt roads, entire families would pass on a single horse, the man with a hunting rifle in hand. The men wore pampero trousers and sat on saddles lined withwooly sheep hides. Those who knew the aguará spoke of the old days when they could receive financial compensation for presenting its leather to local authorities.
I was a bit disconcerted when I first heard this. Yet public opinion has improved with a greater knowledge of the animal's natural history. Distant relative of the fox and wolf, the maned wolf is the only surviving member of its genus. Though it feeds on plants and small prey such as rodents and crustaceans, the aguará was traditionally characterized as a livestock thief. Its leather was also highly sought, believed to guard against riding accidents. According to interviews done in 2004 in a nearby region, many still believed in the lobizón (wolf-man) myth. Another goal of the interview process, then, is to help reveal future targets for Lucía’s charlas: informal, educational talks to the local people highlighting the native predator and its role in the local ecosystem.
In the end, I never did see a maned wolf. I knew the chance was low when I first signed up. But I left the field with the sense that I knew the aguará: I’d gotten the opportunity to grasp where it came from. Though the esteros and pastizales were by no means unimportant, the maned wolf's true “environment” turned out to transcend even the animal’s broader ecology. And perhaps the kernel of the notion lay in those little houses flanked by grapefruit trees that sat in endless scrubland, caught in the stories and bits of lore their inhabitants told us over steaming mate and sugared chipá pastries.
Rebecca Greenberg is a junior at Harvard College studying Organismic & Evolutionary Biology. An aspiring field biologist, she also loves to write about science and her outdoor adventures. On campus, she edits Ecdysis, a biannual undergraduate journal dedicated to the artistic expression of science.