Know your Camelid! Is it a llama, alpaca, guanaco or vicuña?
Western kids are brought up knowing the differences between sheep and goats and ducks and geese, but show an adult American or European a picture of any of the four South American camelids and there’s a 99% chance he’ll say “Llama!” and pull a funny face. If you’re planning a trip to the Andean regions you owe it to your hosts to learn a bit about llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas before you go.
The camelid family
Although this blog is all about telling the differences between the four South American species it makes sense to look first at the similarities before we start revealing the differences.
All camelid species developed from a single ancestor in North America about forty million years ago. Around 3 million years ago migration began, which is a good thing because the North American population was wiped out in the last ice age. The animals which headed South evolved into guanacos, vicuñas, llamas and alpacas, while those which headed East became camels.
Here are a few outward characteristics which all camelids share…
- They don’t have horns
- They don’t have hooves. Instead they have two-toed feet with toenails and soft foot pads.
- Their upper lips are split in two and each part is separately mobile.
- They walk by moving both legs on the same side simultaneously, in a sort of left-right-left march. That’s why they have such a distinctive sway when you ride them.
- They do spit when they get angry, but they don’t often get angry at humans.
And now some internal anatomical characteristics…
- They have three-chambered stomachs
- They’re the only mammal species to have elliptical red blood cells.
- They also possess a unique type of antibody which is currently being used for ground-breaking pharmaceutical research.
The easiest way to spot a llama is by its size. Llamas are far and away the largest South American camelid, attaining weights of as much as 440lb. Although Middle Eastern camels can weigh five times this, there’s nothing in South America which comes close to resembling an adult llama. The lifespan of a llama ranges from 15 to 30 years.
Llamas are the domesticated form of the guanaco, and these two species share the same coarse hair which in Inca times was ‘only fit for commoners’ clothes’ (in reality the undercoat is extremely soft, although not as soft as alpaca wool). Ever since their domestication about 5000 years ago llamas have been used predominantly as pack animals (a practice we're heightening awareness of via our partnerships along the Great Inca Trail), and in many parts of the Andes they are still the only form of transportation. They are also used for their meat and their wool and, interestingly, they also make pretty good guard animals.
Alpacas aren’t only a lot smaller than llamas, they are also much, much woolier. The only time you’ll ever confuse an alpaca with a llama is when an adolescent alpaca has just been sheared. The other obvious different between the two species lies in their ears: alpacas have symmetrical, pear-shaped ears, while llamas have longer, wonkier ears which look a bit like bananas. Alpacas usually have a ‘top knot’ hairdo and are quite often dressed up like prize poodles by their owners - especially in touristy areas. Alpacas weigh between 100 and 175lbs and can live as long as 25 years.
Recent DNA testing has confirmed that alpacas are the domesticated form of the vicuña, which is where they get their incredible wool and nimble dimensions. Alpaca wool is one of the most sought after fibers in the world. It’s hypo-allergenic and is warmer and softer than lambs’ wool and more hard-wearing and exclusive than cashmere. There are two subspecies of Alpaca: the fluffy, teddy-like Huacaya alpacas and the long-haired Suri alpacas.
Weighing in at 200lb, guanacos are much bigger than vicuñas (the other wild species of South American camelid) but they are a lot smaller than their domesticated form, the llama. The other major difference between guanacos and llamas is their color: llamas can be white, gray, brown, black or piebald but all guanacos have brownish backs, white underparts and grey faces with small straight ears.
The guanaco is an extremely versatile animal, and its territory ranges from Ecuador and Colombia in the North to Patagonia and even Tierra del Fuego in the South. Guanacos can live at extremely high altitudes, and they can also survive on very little water, as is evidenced by the populations in the Atacama desert. Guanaco wool is better than llama wool (especially the soft undercoat) but is considered inferior to alpaca or vicuña wool.
The sleek, delicate vicuña is my favourite Andean animal, but if it hadn't been for a concerted conservation effort in the second half of the twentieth century I may never have gotten to see one. The vicuña’s charming, slender form (they weigh under 150lb) and soft, heavenly wool are also its greatest enemies. Vicuñas only produce about a pound of wool every year: that’s not a lot of wool, especially when you take into account the fact that their life expectancy is only 20 years.
During Inca times the vicuña was a protected species, and only royalty were allowed to wear clothing made from its wool, but when the Spanish arrived vicuña hunting was deregulated. This situation continued until 1964, when the global population reached an all-time low of around 6000. Nowadays there are around 350,000 animals in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and the northern parts of Argentina and Chile, but the vicuña remains an endangered species. To prevent poaching, wild vicuñas are caught and sheared every year. Their wool can fetch prices of $3,000 per pound and is even more desirable than alpaca wool.
In case you were wondering, the cover picture of this post shows a silhouetted guanaco. It was taken by Justin Jensen.
Last updated: February 2021