Camelids of South America

The camelid family includes the camel, alpaca, llama, vicuña and guanaco; only the first of which is not a South American camelid.

South American Camelids

The vicuña and guanaco are wild camelids from which the llama and alpaca have been domesticated and bred.  Research has confirmed that the Incas bred the alpaca out of a vicuña ancestor, and the llama from a guanaco ancestor.  The rare and endangered vicuña is known as the animal with the finest fleece in the world.  Both under the rule of the Inca and today, vicuñas have been protected by law – it is illegal to keep them in captivity or kill them for their hides, and a small scarf that is made from vicuña fiber may cost upwards of $1,000.00.  During the Inca’s time, and similarly today (in government sanctioned form) the fibers were communally gathered in a group effort called chacu.  During the chacu many vicuna are gathered into previously lain traps, sheared, and released back to the wild.

Alpacas and llamas have many differences for such closely related animals – most of these differences are due to the breeding of the animals for a specific purpose.

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llama faceVisually, one can see that the llama is much larger than the alpaca (about twice the size) with a longer neck and legs; as well as a longer face with longer, more curled ears.  The average alpaca weighs between 100-175 lbs fully grown and stands 34″- 36″ at the shoulders; while the average llama weighs between 200-350 lbs and stands 42″- 48″ at the shoulders.

Alpacas are herd animals that thoroughly enjoy being with their herdmates.  Llamas are more independent and are often kept separate from each other.  Alpacas are shy and quiet, easy to train and handle, and extremely intelligent. They rarely bite, spit or kick and have far less problems than sheep and cows, which they will happily graze next to as well.  Llamas, on the other hand, spit quite often (like their camel cousins in the eastern world).  Their large size, and dominant nature make them very good guard animals for alpacas, sheep and other small livestock.

Llamas have a very coarse outer coat over a softer inner coat, while alpacas have a single, very fine (and soft) coat.  Because of the fineness of the alpaca’s coat, they produce more fiber per animal than the llama, despite it’s larger size.  Both animals have been domesticated and bred for over 5,000 years – Alpacas for their soft fibered coat, llamas as pack animals (to pull carts and carry large loads – hence their straighter back more appropriate for weight).  Llamas and alpacas can interbreed and produce live, fertile offspring.  However, this offspring would be neither as strong as a full bred llama nor have as soft a fleece as a full bred alpaca, so this half-breed would not be very useful.

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Alpaca Fiber Alpaca fibre is almost as strong as silk and extremely durable. It is soft, lightweight, lustrous and extremely thermally efficient, and does not cause skin reactions in people who are allergic to the lanolin or guard hairs in sheep’s wool.  Alpaca fleeces have the greatest range of natural colors than any other animal used for fleece. They boast at least 22 colors ranging from true black to pure white, and many variant shades in between.  The alpaca is a fine fiber bearing animal – the llama, also, has fiber that can be used but it is much coarser, although it does have a soft undercoat that is fine and is used by spinners.

There are two different types of alpacas — Huacaya and Suri —with the differences between the two being predominantly fiber related.  Huacaya alpaca have shorter coats that stand fluffily against the skin, while Suri alpaca grow long, shiny locks that curl similarly to dreadlocks.

Huacaya Alpaca Suri Alpaca

Alpaca at Sonccollay Alpaca and llama are also used for their meat in various countries.  Alpaca meat is more likely to be seen on menus in Peru, while llama meat is more likely seen on menus in Bolivia.  This is due to the fact that Peru contains about 80% of all the world’s alpacas and Bolivia contains about 70% of all the world’s llamas.

All in all, South American camelids seem to provide everything necessary to the cultures who continue to breed these creatures – material for woven goods, meat for food, and strength for carrying weight.  Some even keep them as pets to provide income from those quintessential llama photos desired by tourists on a daily basis – a pretty good business I might add.

What more could one ask for from an animal?

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