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You are here: Home / Publications / Bibliographies and Resource Guides / Information Resources on the South American Camelids  / Introduction  Printer Friendly Page
Information Resources on the South American Camelids: Llamas, Alpacas, Guanacos, and Vicunas 2004-2008
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The Camelidae family consists of a small family of mammalian animals. There are two members of Old World camels living in Africa and Asia--Arabian and the Bactrian, and four members of the New World camels living in South America--the llamas, vicunas, alpacas and guanacos. They are all very well adapted to their respective environments: the camels in harsh deserts of Africa and Asia; and their South American cousins inhabit the high altiplano and bush area of South America. Most of these species have been integrated into, and play very important roles in lives of the indigenous people. They have been traditionally used for transport of people and things, hides and fibers for clothing and other textile articles, and in many cases they supply meat and milk products, etc. The South American species are being raised in non-native countries for a variety of reasons: as pack animals, pets, guard animals for sheep ranges, and for fiber. Their biology, reproduction, disease susceptibility, behavior, and nutrition have not been studied to any great extent until fairly recently. Because there are now fairly high populations of these animals in the United States and some other temperate countries, there has been more interest and need to understand their needs, in order to provide adequate housing, feed and veterinary care as they are moved from their native environments to new climates, etc. It is with these needs in mind, that this information resource has been compiled.

Camelidae Family (see Mason, I.L. 1979 for more taxonomic information and characteristics of these animals.)

Oddly enough, the Camelidae evolved in North America. The early ancestors migrated from North America by a crossing the Alaskan land bridge to Asia and the Panama land connection to South America. They eventually became extinct in North America, but began to thrive in their new lands. At one time camels ranged from Asia to Eastern Europe. After crossing into Africa, they were found across the entire northern region and as far south as northern Tanzania. The South American members of the family found their niche in the cool, dry mountain areas of that continent.


Camelids are in the taxonomic order Artiodactyla (even toed ungulates), sub order Tylopoda (pad-footed), and Family Camlidae. They are ruminants along with the giraffes, deer, cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes. They have several unique features: they walk on pads not hoofs, do have long necks, but no horns, antlers or humps. Their red blood cells are oval in shape. The New World camelids have the ability to survive in harsh dry climates due to ther ability to conserve their body water. The groups includes two wild species in the high Andes of South America-- the vicuna (Vicugna vicugna) and the guanaco (Lamaguanacoe). The native peoples of the Andes domesticated these animals and though selective breeding developed the llama (Lama glama) and the alpaca (Lama pacos or according to Marin (2007) 2. Vicugna pacos). The long standing controversy over the taxonomic relationships between these species may finally have been settled Marin et al (2007) who states“variations in chromosome G banding patterns and two mitochrondiral gene sequences were used to study the origin and classification of the llama and alpaca. Differences were found in the short arms of chromosome 1, separating camels, guanacos and llamas from vicunas and alpacas. Phylogenetic analyses showed V. vicugna and L. guanacoe as monophyletic groups.” “Marin says that “our results strongly support the hypothesis that the llama would have derived from the L. gunacoe and the alpaca from the V. vicugna supporting a reclassification as V. pacos.” This genetic analysis is also supported by Kadwell’s (2001) 1. does not support the previously accepted thought that both llamas and alpacas were derived from the guanaco. However, since Marin’s 2007 reclassification has not become common nomenclature, the old genus and species name of Lama pacos will appear in most of the literature that is included in this document.

Introduction to the South American Camelidae

As mentioned above, there are probably just basically two species. All four types have been found to breed in captivity, so genetic relationships are uncertain. Llamoid or camelid is a common name for this group.

Each of the South American camelids has unique qualities, value and can be used as a source of a wide range of services and products useful to humans. Therefore, a short description and use of each of these interesting, intelligent, and useful animals follows.

The animals are medium sized land mammals. Males are somewhat larger than the females. Their heads have a straight profile. They have no horns or antlers. They have large eyes and thick lashes. The ears are long and pointed. One obvious feature that is different from old world camels is the lack of a hump as their backs are straight. Their foot pads are proportionately smaller than a camel's because they need to move securely on rocky trails and gravel mountain slopes. Since they live in cold, dry places in South America, they have very dense, wooly coats. They may kick or spit if threatened.

Llamas* (Lama glama)

Llamas are the largest of the four South American camelids. They can weigh up to 300 pounds. Males are somewhat larger than the females. They are mainly used for fiber and as unusual pack animals in many countries around the world. Currently, they are being used for hauling carts and driving, pet therapy with elderly and disabled persons and as guard animals in large free-range sheep operations. They are environmentally sensitive and intelligent. They are also extremely gentle and used as pet therapy because of their calming effect. They seldom bite or butt and they have no horns, hooves, or claws to do injury. They are alert, curious, adaptable, and predictable with docile, disarming temperaments. They are adapted to high altitudes because their hemoglobin, a constituent of red blood cells, can absorb more oxygen than that of other mammals. Their red blood cells also have a longer life span than other mammals, an average of 235 days versus 100 days for humans.

In their native habitats, llamas played an important role in the ancient Inca civilization in South America. Archeological evidence indicates that they have been domesticated by the indigenous folk from the wild guanaco approximately 5,000 years ago. In the Incan culture, many llamas and alpacas were sacrificed to the gods every year. The meat would then be distributed to the crowds. Llamas were also an integral part of the Inca's workforce. As pack animals they contributed vastly to the building of their irrigation systems, roads, and temples. They were also used to carry loads in the Inca's mines.

Llamas are still used today by the indigenous peoples of South America for packing and transporting goods, fibers, and for meat. Mostly the males are used as pack animal. They usually carry up to fifty pound loads. Stallions can carry up to 110-176 pounds for about 19 miles (a day's march for a llama). Male pack animals are not sheared for their wool as the heavy thick coat acts as a saddle blanket by cushioning their loads. It has been suggested that the llamas were selectively bred as pack animals leading to a larger stronger animals than their wild parent. The females are sheared, but llama wool is inferior to the alpacas and is often used to make rope. (The alpaca has probably been selected and breed for wool and not as a pack animal.) It is interested to note that llamas only allow themselves to be loaded when they are part of a group. South American herders use most parts of a culled llama's carcasses. They are important sources of meat, wool, hides for various uses including sandals, and fat for candles. Even their dung can be dried and used for fuel.

Alpacas+ (Llama pacos/ proposed Vicugna pacos)

Indications are that alpacas were domesticated 6-7,000 years ago. Alpaca's roots also go back to the Incan civilization, where alpacas were considered a "prize." Kadwell et al 1 used mitrochrondial and microsatellite DNA analysis that indicates that the vicuna was the ancestor of the alpaca, which would explain why their coats make the finer quality wool than the llams. Alpaca fiber was woven into robes used by Inca royalty. They also provided food, fuel, clothing, and transportation for this culture in an otherwise extremely hostile environment. Alpacas still thrive in the harsh climates of the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean highlands where scorching temperatures in the day plummet to sub-freezing at night. They prefer low humidity and altitudes between 13,000 and 16,000 feet. At low altitudes, their wool is often of poorer quality. Nevertheless, they are well suited for conditions in the US and are being bred in at least 44 states (1997 estimates). They also are increasing in numbers in many other parts of the world.

Alpacas are small compared to llamas, approximately 36" at the withers. Piebald color patterns are much rarer than in llamas, and alpacas usually have a tuft of hair on their forehead. Their life span is 15 to 25 years. Their weight can range between 100 to 175 pounds (approximately one-half to one-third the size of a llama). Their gestation period is approximately 11.5 months. Their birth weight is between 15 and 19 pounds and the babies (crias) can stand and nurse within 30 minutes to one hour after birth. They also have a very low infant mortality rate.

The males produce approximately eight pounds and the females about five pounds of easily marketable wool fiber from their coats per year. The fiber comes in approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends. It has a cellular structure similar to hair and is more resilient and much stronger than Merino sheep wool. It is highly sought after in Britain, Europe, and Japan. The cria fiber is extra fine and lustrous and commands a higher selling price. Their wool quality is only slightly lower than the vicuna. The black coats are usually the heaviest. The Suri breed has finer, thicker, and longer hair and provides up to eleven pounds of wool per year, but the breed has a greater susceptibility to parasites.

In South America, shearing is usually done every two years before the rainy season in November and December. After seven years of age, alpacas are used primarily for meat. In 1972, there were about two million living in Peru and 50,000 in Bolivia.

Alpacas are inexpensive to feed (about $1 per day per alpaca). This is about the same cost as a large dog. They have three stomachs which enable them to be very efficient at digesting what they eat. They are more fastidious feeders than llamas, being very Earth-friendly by grazing meticulously throughout the pasture. They prefer free range pasture to confinement in a stall or barn. They have sensitive feet and prefer soft, moist ground with tender grasses. They also enjoy pools and puddles for wallowing. A lack of adequate ground moisture is thought to lead to a fatal foot disease and rainless years often lead to higher mortality rates. No special food is required for them except in winter or in late pregnancy when all they need is good quality hay and low protein pellets. Alpacas will spit on one another if sufficiently angered, but will rarely spit on people.

One acre will provide ample room for five to ten alpacas, much more economical than most other types of livestock. Any fencing that may be required is usually to keep predators out of the pasture versus keeping the alpacas in. Simple shelters will suffice, usually only requiring a three-sided enclosure or a lean-to. Alpacas usually defecate in fixed areas and avoid grazing there, keeping parasitic infestations low. Their manure also makes an excellent fertilizer.

They have a high world market value-- $8,500 and $25,000 per animal; a breeding age female goes for $15,000 to 25,000 (1997 estimates). Some female alpacas are bred as young as 6-12 months of age because breeders are in a hurry to produce young, but it is recommended that the first breeding be at 18-24 months of age to allow full physical and social maturity. In the United States, they can be insured and depreciated from the owner's taxes. Other tax advantages include expense deductions and deferred recognition of accumulating wealth.

They were first imported to the US in 1984 and spread quickly to Canada. There have been limited numbers allowed for export from South America for reasons such as restricting their export and animal health problems. There were relatively few of these animals in North America (less than 8,000 in 1996), but the numbers are increasing rapidly as they are an economically rewarding fiber producing animal both in the US and in many other countries.


Guanacos are the larger of the two wild camelid species. They stand about four feet tall at the shoulder and about five feet to the top of the head. They have a body length of up to six feet with an approximately ten-inch long tail. They can weigh up to 210 pounds. Their wooly coat is tawny to brown and their head is usually grey.

Wild guanacos thrive in the plains of northern Peru to southern Patagonia. They often live in the mountains and altiplano areas above 12,000 feet. Usually herds of several females travel with one male; however, leaderless herds of males of up to 200 have been found. The guanaco can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour and they are also strong swimmers. Their mating season is during August and September. They have a ten to eleven month gestation period. The babies can run soon after birth and are weaned at six to twelve weeks.


Vicunas are smaller than guanacos and weigh only about 100 pounds. Vicunas thrive in the mountainous regions of Northern Peru and Chile at altitudes above 14,000 feet. They are up to three feet at the shoulder and usually have a light brown coat with a yellow-red bib. They are very social animals. There are male dominated family groups. Non-territorial males form groups of both young and desposed older males. Vicunas are less easy to tame than the guanaco because they are extremely shy, but some South American Jesuits have shown they can be domesticated. These animals are less adaptable to different environments. The native people do harvest the wool of these animals. They drive them into an enclosure, shear them, and release them.

References (*, +- denotes a large portion of this reference was used to create the text below):

Anderson, David E. The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine Presents Camelid Medicine, Surgery and Reproduction, March 22-25, 2000. Ohio State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Columbus, Ohio. [2000] 348 p., ill. (some col.).
NAL call no.: SF997.5.C3035 2000

* Burton, Maurice; Burton, Robert. Marshall Cavendish Corp. The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. B.P.C. Publishing Limited, New York. 1969; 10: 1329-1331.
NAL call no.: QL9.B82

Burton, Maurice. The World Encyclopedia of Animals. World Publishing Company. New York. 1972.
NAL call no.: QL9.B8

Grzimek, Bernhard; Hutchins, M. (Editor). Camels, guanacos, llamas, alpacas and vicunas. In: D.G. Kleinman; V. Geist; M.C. McDade (Editors). Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. 2nd edition, Vol. 15, Mammals IV, p. 313-323, 200 3. Thompson, Gale, Farmington Hill, WI. ISBN: 0787653624.

Mason, I.L. Origins, evolution and distribution of domestic camels. In: W. Ross Cockrill (Editor). The Camelid. An All-Purpose Animal. Volume 1. Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, Uppsala. Proceedings of the Khartoum Workshop on Camels, December 1979. p. 16-35.
NAL call no.: SF401.C2K48 1979 v. 1

Rae, M. Alpacas: wooly & wonderful.Small Farm Today. Feb/Mar 1997; 14(1): 27. ISSN: 1079-9729.
NAL call no.: S1.M57

+Sands, J.D. Alpacas: attractive investment attractive lifestyle.AgVentures. June/July 1997; [1(1)?]: 28-32.
NAL call no.: S441.A475

1. Kadwell, Miranda; Fernandez, Matilde; Stanley, Helen F.; Baldi, Ricardo; Wheeler, Jane C.; Rosadio, Raul; Bruford, Michael W. Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. Series B. 2001 Dec; 268(1485): 2575-2584.  ISSN:  0962-8452. 
NAL call no.:  501 L84B

2. Marin, Juan C.; Zapata, Beatriz; Gonzalez, Benito A.; Bonacic, Cristian: Wheeler, Jane C.; Casey, Ciara; Bruford, Michael W.; Palma, R. Eduardo; Poulin, Elie; Alliende, M. Angelica; Spotorno, Angel E. Sistematica taxonomia y domesticacion de alpacas y llamas: nueva evidencia cromosomica y molecular. [Systematics, taxonomy and domestication of alpaca and llama: new chromosomal and molecular evidence.] Revista Chilena de Historia Natural. 2007: 80(2): 121-140. ISSN: 0716-078X.


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