Llamas, alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos are four closely related species that all hail from the same region of South America. Collectively, they are known as South American camelids (SAC) because they are also close relatives to camels, though you won’t find any humps among these animals!
While these four species are similar enough that they can successfully interbreed among themselves, there are still some differences between them. In this article, we’ll cover the differences between these four species in more detail to help you learn how to tell them apart.
At a Glance
|Origin:||Bolivia, Peru, Chile||Bolivia, Peru, Chile||Peru to Argentina||Peru to Argentina|
|Size:||47 inches at the shoulder, 280-450 pounds||35 inches at the shoulder, 121-143 pounds||36 inches at the shoulder, 110 pounds||43 inches at the shoulder, 200 pounds|
|Lifespan:||15-20 years||15-20 years||15-20 years||15-20 years|
Llama Animal Breed Overview
Characteristics & Appearance
Llamas are the largest of the SAC species. They have long faces with rounded muzzles and a split upper lip. Llamas’ ears are tall and curved. Their eyes are on the side of their head, giving them a wide field of vision to spot predators.
Llamas’ feet are split into two large toes. Their bodies are covered in thick wool in a variety of colors and patterns. Some common colors include brown, red, gray, and beige.
Llamas are social animals that live in herds. They communicate by vocalizing, spitting, touch, scent, and body posture. They are generally gentle animals but can be stubborn and will act out if asked to carry too much weight, which has given them a bit of a bad reputation.
There are no wild populations of llamas but they are found domestically worldwide. It’s believed that modern llamas descend from wild guanacos.
Llamas are believed to be one of the first domesticated animals. They’ve worked alongside humans in their native lands for 4,000-6,000 years. Sure-footed and surprisingly strong, llamas make excellent pack animals, especially in rough and mountainous terrain.
Llama wool is shorn and used for weaving and textiles. Llamas also serve as a food source, providing both milk and meat. Llama dung can be burned as fuel.
Always on the alert, llamas are often kept with smaller livestock, like sheep, to help protect the flock from predators such as coyotes. Worldwide, llamas are also kept as pets and farm companions.
Characteristics & Appearance
Smaller than llamas, alpacas have slim bodies and short, furry faces. Their ears are pointed rather than curved. The males’ canine and incisor teeth grow longer than females, one of the only differences between the two sexes.
Alpacas are covered in soft, fleece-like wool in up to 16 different colors. Their wool is much softer than the llama’s. Their feet are similar in appearance to llamas and are soft and padded.
Like llamas, alpacas are herd animals, but they are much more timid and reliant on their herd to feel safe than the more independent llama. Alpacas communicate with sounds such as humming, clucking, grumbling, and screeching. They also spit at each other to express dominance or displeasure.
Alpacas are believed to descend from wild vicunas. There are no wild populations of alpacas, but they are farmed worldwide.
Alpacas are shy, gentle, and easy to handle animals, that are considered more mellow than llamas.
Alpacas were also domesticated early, probably about 6,000 years ago. Like llamas, they were used as pack animals but their primary function was and continues to be as a source of wool. Alpaca wool is considered very high-quality and is used to make woven and knitted products.
Alpacas can also serve as livestock guardians, protecting sheep flocks from predators. Some alpacas are also raised for meat. Alpacas are kept as pets and on hobby farms.
Characteristics & Appearance
Vicunas are slender and agile animals with long necks and legs. Their body wool is extra soft and fine, with longer hair on their bellies and necks to help keep them warm. Vicunas are usually light brown with lighter undersides and faces.
Vicunas are one of two wild species of SAC found in the Andes mountains. Their habitat is high plains and grasslands. They eat a variety of plants and grasses and usually move to higher elevations at night.
These are herd animals that live in either family, bachelor, or solitary groups. Males lead family herds of females while young males leave to form bachelor herds until they are old enough to start families. Older males make up the solitary herds.
Vicuna wool is often considered the finest in the world. Unlike their domesticated cousins, vicunas don’t live on farms. Their wool is obtained by the management of wild herds. Vicunas are docile enough that they can be regularly rounded up, shorn of their wool, and released back into the wild.
This type of management is less stressful to vicunas than keeping them in populations under human care. In the mid-20th century, vicunas nearly went extinct due to overhunting and are now protected in many areas. Poaching and illegal hunting are still a danger and some farmers and ranchers dislike having vicunas competing for food and water with their livestock.
Appearance & Characteristics
Guanacos are similar in size to llamas and males are bigger than females. Their coats are thick and wooly, found in red, light brown, or brownish-yellow shades. They have white undersides and gray faces.
The guanacos are wild animals that inhabit dry grasslands and deserts from Peru to Argentina. They have large eyes, thick eyelashes, and pointed ears. Like the other SAC, their feet are soft and split into two toes.
Guanacos live in herds for social structure and protection. They are fast and agile animals, excellent climbers, and fine swimmers. With no chance of fighting their predators, they are well suited to make a speedy escape.
Like the other SAC species, guanacos have many ways to communicate, including body and ear movements, vocalizations, and yes, spitting. They also mark their territory by leaving communal dung piles for other herds to come across.
Guanacos eat a variety of plant life and are adapted to not need to drink extra water besides what they get from their meals, a major plus considering their usual habitat.
Similar to the vicuna, guanaco wool is used for high-end textiles. It is soft, warm, light, and weather-resistant. Like the vicuna, wild guanacos are regularly rounded up and shorn of their wool before being released.
The wild guanaco population used to number in the millions but overhunting for both meat and pelts has severely impacted their numbers, with only about 600,000 still living in the wild.
Because of this, the species is protected and managed. Like the vicuna, guanacos are often in danger from farmers and ranchers who dislike sharing their grazing land with wild animals.
What Are the Differences Between the Llama, Alpaca, Vicuna, and Guanaco?
The major differences between these animals are their size and whether they’re wild or domesticated. Llamas and alpacas are domesticated and llamas are the bigger of the two species. They are used for similar purposes by humans.
Vicunas and guanacos are wild and both are sustainably managed for their wool. Vicunas are the smaller and lighter of the two. The two species are similar in color but guanacos have darker faces.
Which Animal Is Right for You?
Unless you’re managing wild herds in South America, you probably won’t be able to own a vicuna or guanaco. Llamas and alpacas are similar when it comes to their uses but llamas can be a little tougher to manage and handle due to their personalities.
Alpacas are the better choice if you’re looking to raise animals for wool, due to the higher quality of their coats compared to llamas. The size of llamas makes them the better choice for pack work and livestock guarding.
Both alpacas and llamas make fun and low-maintenance additions to farms and livestock herds, but the choice between the two often comes down to what role you want them to play.
- Related article: Can Llamas Swim & Do They Enjoy It?
Featured Image Credit: manfredrichter, Pixabay