Keeping Camelids Close

These friendly, inquisitive animals are more than the perfect pet.

| January/February 2008

While the sheep, cow and horse seem to have been around forever, the llama and alpaca are fairly new faces in the barnyard. But these South American camelids are slowly becoming a popular herd in the United States.

Relatives of the camel, the llama family originated in North America, but they migrated south millennia ago and were domesticated at least 4,000 years ago as pack, meat and fiber animals in Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Four camelid species populate the Andean highlands: the wild vicuña and guanaco and the domesticated llama and alpaca.

These cud-chewing ungulates are equipped with a three-chambered stomach and two-toed feet complete with toenails and a tough, leathery sole-pad.

Adapted to steep and rocky terrain, South American camelids can move the pads on their toes to get a better grip. The four species, while distinct, can interbreed, and unlike mules, babies born of llama and alpaca parents are fertile.

Wild ancestors

As the probable ancestor of the llama, the guanaco (gwah-nahk-oh) is the animal most likely to have been chosen for domestication by early South Americans. About 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder, guanacos weigh about 200 pounds and are double coated, which means they have a coarse outer hair and soft undercoat. They are light brown with white underbelly and have a gray face and small straight ears.

The vicuña (vih-coo-nya) is the smallest of the camelids at about 2.5 to 3 feet tall at the shoulder and 100-125 pounds. Its ears are slightly longer and its head is slightly shorter than the guanaco. It is cinnamon-colored with longer white fur on its belly and chest. Vicuña fiber is the finest in the world (see “With camelids, it’s all about the fiber”), and the alpaca is speculated to have vicuña in its background.

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