It’s a deer … it’s a rabbit … no, it’s a mara!
Hello! I’m Sarah, a member of the Outback Station Care Team here at the Zoo. My department is mostly known for our goats, sheep, pigs, and alpacas, but just up the hill from the petting zoo is one of my personal favorite animals that we take care of. It’s probably one most people have never heard of, either!
Living across the road from Logan the fossa is the Patagonian mara. The name alone sounds like a made-up animal, and when you look at them, it’s even harder to believe they’re real. Despite looking a bit like a mad scientist combined a deer and a rabbit, maras are actually related to something a lot of people have had as a pet at some point or another – guinea pigs!
Besides being wild-looking critters, maras are a great example of animals being put under pressure by introduced species and habitat loss. Their native range is fairly restricted, being found only in the wilds of Argentina. The areas they inhabit have been slowly transformed by the introduction of domestic sheep, changing from wide-open grasslands to smaller patches of dense, woody plants. This is a less than ideal habitat for maras, so not only do they just do poorly in these areas going forward, but they are less likely to travel through them. This basically breaks their habitats up into small chunks, an effect called habitat fragmentation.
Also incredibly harmful for wild maras has been the introduction of the European hare. They were originally released into the wild of South America in the late 1800s, and very shortly after became so overpopulated they were actually deemed to be an agricultural pest! There are two reasons these hares are such a problem for maras: disease and competition.
The introduction of disease is often a huge issue with invasive species. Non-native animals often bring non-native disease with them, and the native species of the area aren’t equipped to handle those diseases. In the case of the European hare, it brought along with it Jonhe disease and toxoplasmosis. Maras, unfortunately, are not typically exposed to these diseases in their natural environment and therefore don’t have the antibodies to easily fight off infection.
Overall, Patagonian maras are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, an organization dedicated to tracking the conservation status of species worldwide. While their population shows a downward trend for now, there are conservation efforts being done in their native range! They’ve had protected areas created throughout their native range, and biologists continue to research even more ways to help them out in terms of managing agriculture and the European hare. In zoos across the world, a healthy population is kept in human care to help educate the public about their wild cousins.
Next time you’re at the Zoo, stop by and say hi to our boy Reuben, and remember: He’s not a deer, a bunny, or a jackalope, he’s a Patagonian mara!
(photo: Sarah F.)
Keeper II, Ambassador Animals