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The enigma of guanacos in the Falkland Islands: the legacy of John Hamilton

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Abstract Aim 

To address the biogeographical enigma of why guanacos (Lama guanicoe) are in the Falkland Islands we investigated the following questions: (1) What was the origin of the introduced guanacos? (2) What were the initial population sizes? (3) Why are they found only on one island? and (4) Who was John Hamilton and what role did he play? Location 

The Falkland Islands are located in the South Atlantic Ocean 600 km east of Patagonia at the southern end of South America. While dominated by East and West Falkland Islands, the archipelago is composed of some 750 islands. Sedge and Staats Islands, two small outlying islands of West Falkland, are the focus of this paper. Methods 

Historical information was collected from known relevant documents housed at the Falkland Islands Government Archives in Stanley, and personal interviews conducted with past and present residents of West Falklands. Research expeditions were made to Staats Island in 1999, 2002 and 2003 to assess the guanaco population size, distribution and social structure. Results 

Guanacos were unsuccessfully introduced in 1862 to East Falkland south of Mt Pleasant where Prince Alfred hunted them in 1871. John Hamilton, Scottish immigrant to the Falklands and Patagonia of southern Argentina and Chile, was the driving force in the introduction of guanacos from the region of Rio Gallegos, Argentina during the 1930s. The guanaco was one of several wildlife species he introduced, however, only the guanaco, Patagonia grey fox (Dusicyon griseus) and perhaps the sea otter (Lutra felina) survive. Hamilton's acting agent, Jimmy Miller, imported four shipments totalling 26 guanacos from 1934 to 1939. In 1934 the Falkland Government authorized Miller to introduce guanacos to Sedge Island, all 11 of which disappeared. Whether intentional or accidental, 15 guanacos were taken to Staats Island, an islet of 500 ha on the western edge of the archipelago. Historically, guanacos are unexpected on Staats Island because documentation authorizing their introduction is unknown. Guanaco numbers have fluctuated widely on Staats Island for 65 years primarily due to culling. In 1959 the population was dangerously close to extirpation, but today 400 thrive there. A severely reduced gene pool and genetic bottlenecking were suggested by recent field studies, revealing preliminary evidence of deleterious consequences of inbreeding. Main conclusions 

John Hamilton, spirited and visionary Scottish immigrant to the Falklands in the early 1880s, was responsible for the introduction of guanacos into the Falkland Islands. While there are some gaps in the historical events, the enigma of how and why guanacos were introduced to a single island in the South Atlantic Ocean is understood. Today, Staats Island, as a closed system, is a rare natural experiment in progress. It offers unique opportunities for addressing advanced questions in ungulate population, behavioural and genetic ecology. The population potentially also represents breeding stock for farming the guanaco's highly valuable wool on other islands. Thus, among his many efforts to practice land stewardship and promote economic diversity through the introduction of Patagonian wildlife, a remaining legacy of John Hamilton to the Falkland Islands is unmistakably the guanacos of Staats Island.
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Keywords: Falkland Islands; Guanaco; John Hamilton; Lama guanicoe; Patagonia wildlife; Staats Island; genetic bottlenecking; introduced species

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA

Publication date: 2005-04-01

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