Peru is known for its camel members of the Camelidae family, which are found both wild and domestic in South America.

In the Old World, camels exist in two well-known species: the dromedary (Arabian camel or Indian camel; a hump) and the more unusual Bactrian camel (two humps). However, their new world relatives do not have a hump, so it is not that easy to separate them.

If you’ve ever been to Peru, there’s a good chance you’ve found yourself adoring at an alpaca or leering at a llama, but how do you know which one is which?

Llamas and alpacas are related and have been traced back as far as the Inca period. Although alpacas and llamas belong to the same family, when it comes down to alpaca vs llama, they are quite different in many respects.

South American Camels

In South America today, four camels (camelids) are recognized, two wild and two domestic. The two wild forms, the greater guanaco (Lama guanicoe ) and the daintier vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), differed from a common ancestor about two million years ago, an event unrelated to domestication. Genetic research suggests that the lesser alpaca (Lama pacos L.) is the domesticated version of the more secondary wild form, vicuña. At the same time, the greater lama (Lama glama L) is the domestic form of the greater guanaco.

Physically, the boundary between llamas and alpacas has been blurred due to deliberate hybridization between the two species over the past 35 years, but that has not stopped scientists from getting to the heart of the matter.

All four camelids are grazers, and although they have different geographical distributions today, both historically and currently, the camelids were all used for meat and fuel, as well as wool for clothing and a string source for making quipu and baskets. Quechua (the state language of the Inca ), the word for dried camel meat, is ch’arki, Spanish “charqui,” and etymological ancestor the English term jerky.

llamas vs alpacas infographic

Ceremonial Role in South American Cultures

Archaeologists believe that both llamas and alpacas were previously part of a sacrificial rite in Chiribaya cultural sites such as El Yaral, where naturally mummified animals were found buried under house floors. 

Evidence of their use in Chavín cultural sites such as Chavín de Huántar is somewhat unequivocal but seems plausible. Archaeologist Nicolas Goepfert found that at least only pets among Mochica were part of sacrificial ceremonies. Kelly Knudson and colleagues studied camel bones from Inca festivals at Tiwanaku in Bolivia and identified evidence that camelids consumed during the festivities were as common outside the Lake Titicaca region as local.

Shared Features in South American Camels

Before we move on, here are some features that all four of the South American camels share:

  • They are all herbivores.
  • They have two-toed feet with soft cushions that move larger grips.
  • Unlike other animals like cows, pigs and sheep, they have a three-chambered stomach.
  • The red blood cells in all Camelidae are oval, a function not found in other mammals.
  • Camels are official flagship products in Peru, with an emphasis on more commonly exported alpacas.
  • Llamas and alpacas can cross; a cross between a female alpaca and a male llama is called a “huarizo.”
  • Baby alpacas and llamas are called crias (from the Spanish word CRIA , which means “baby” when referring to animals).
white alpaca

Llama and Alpaca Domestication

The earliest evidence of domestication of both llamas and alpacas comes from archeological sites in the Puna region of the Peruvian Andes, between ~ 4000–4900 meters (13,000–14,500 feet) above sea level. At Telarmachay Rockshelter, located 170 kilometers (105 miles) northeast of Lima, actual evidence from the long-occupied site traces a development of human subsistence related to the camels. 

The first hunters in the region (~ 9000–7200 years ago) lived on generalized hunting of guanaco, vicuña and huemul deer. Between 7,200 and 6,000 years ago, they switched to special hunting in guanaco and vicuña. 

The control of domestic alpacas and llamas was in force 6000–5500 years ago, and a dominant shepherd economy based on llamas and alpacas was established in Telarmachay 5500 years ago.

Evidence of domestication of llamas and alpacas accepted by researchers includes changes in dental morphology, the presence of fetal and newborn camelids in archaeological deposits, and increasing dependence on camelids indicated by the frequency of camel remains in deposits. Wheeler has estimated that 3800 years ago, the people of Telarmachay based 73% of their diet on camelids.

llama looking straight at the camera

Lama (Lama glama, Linnaeus 1758)

Laman is the largest of the domestic camels and resembles guanaco in almost every aspect of behavior and morphology. Llama is the Quechua term for L. glama , known as qawra by Aymara speakers. Tamed from guanaco in the Peruvian Andes about 6000–7000 years ago, llamas were moved to lower altitudes 3,800 years ago, and 1400 years ago, they were kept in flocks on the northern coasts of Peru and Ecuador. In particular, the Inca used llamas to move their imperialist trains to southern Colombia and central Chile.

The llamas range in height from 109–119 centimeters (43–47 inches) at the withers and weigh from 130–180 kilograms (285–400 pounds). In the past, llamas were used as draft animals, as well as for meat, hides and fuel from their manure. Llamas have upright ears, a narrower body and smaller woolen legs than alpacas.

According to Spanish records, the Inca had a hereditary caste of grassland specialists who bred animals with specific colored shells to sacrifice to various gods. Flock size and color information is believed to have been preserved using quipu. Herds were both individually owned and municipal.

Alpacas and llamas are two domestic camels in South America. 

Llamas are the largest of the new world camels. The average llama generally ranges from (1.25 m) about 4 feet on the shoulder or (1.83 m) 6 feet on top of the head. An adult llama typically weighs between 300 and 450 pounds (135 to 205 kg).

Llamas originated from wild guanaco and were tamed in the highlands of the Andes by Peru some 5,000 years ago. They were crucial to pre-Inca civilizations such as Moche (100 AD to 800 AD) as well as to the Incas themselves, providing fiber, meat, and manure (for fattening).

Identification

A llamas size and general bulk distinguish it from slimmer and smaller alpaca. Llamas come in various colors (including white, brown, gray and black, either solid or spotted). Llamas have a longer head, neck and long banana-shaped ears, distinguish them from the smaller alpaca.

Behavior and Personality

Do llamas spit? Yep, they sure do. 

But this usually only happens when they feel threatened or irritated. In general, llamas are especially social herd animals-they also want to hum with each other, like a wooly acapella group! 

When properly raised, llamas are also good around people – including children – and show a calm but inquisitive attitude.

Llama Wool

Although alpaca wool is known for its luxurious quality and is sought after globally, llama wool is also used throughout the world. Llama fiber is much coarser than that of an alpaca, so is normally used for rugs and ropes rather than blankets and fabrics.

three alpacas in the snow

Alpaca (Lama Pacos Linné 1758)

The alpaca is significantly smaller than the llama. There are two breeds of alpaca: the huacaya and the suri. 

The average alpaca stands from 94–104 cm (37–41 inches) in height and alpacas generally weigh 55–85 kg (120–190 pounds). Archaeological evidence suggests that alpacas, like llamas, first became domesticated animals in the Puna Highlands of central Peru about 6,000–7,000 years ago.

Their smaller size precludes their use as a mammal, but they have long been bred solely for fiber.

Huacaya alpacas are much more common than the Suri breed and account for about 90 percent of the global alpaca population.

Identification

Alpacas have a “teddy bear” -like appearance due to fleece growing close to both legs and faces. Alpacas are available in various natural colors, from white to black with different shades of gray and brown (the international alpaca wool market officially recognizes 22 natural colors).

Behavior and personality

Alpacas are intelligent, curious and soft pack animals. They are very much herd animals that live in family groups that contain a dominant male alpaca.

However, alpacas can also be trained and make great pets. They are happy to be dependent on humans and live with other livestock. Like their larger camelid cousin, alpacas sometimes spit when threatened, aiming their unpleasant projectiles at other alpacas or sometimes at nearby people. 

The most obvious difference between the two animals at first glance can be seen when looking directly at the alpaca’s face. Unlike their larger cousin, an alpaca has short spear-shaped ears.

Alpacas make clucking sounds to show their own or submissive behavior and often hum when they are happy. Despite spitting, alpacas are particularly hygienic animals, using a common manure pile to avoid contaminating their pastures.

Another noticeable difference is that alpacas live at high altitudes of 12,000 feet and llamas tend to live at altitudes less than 8,000 feet.

Alpaca Wool

Alpaca wool is possibly the finest in the world.

Unlike sheep’s wool, the alpaca has a much finer fiber which offers a fine fleece that is appreciated worldwide for its delicate, light, cashmere-like feel that comes in a variety of colors from white, through fawn, brown, gray and black, which is both luxurious and hypoallergenic.

Baby alpaca fiber, which comes from the alpaca’s first shear, is the most exquisite there is and highly sought after.

The fleeces of the two types of alpaca are easy to identify visually. Huacaya fleece grows vertically from the body with a natural waviness and is naturally dense. Suri fleece, however, hangs down in long and highly silky pencil-like “dreadlocks.” 

Alpacas are shorn once a year With a clipper, usually with the alpaca lying on a table. The alpaca is led out, and two people are then helped to lift up and lay the animal on the table. The front and hind feet are held or fixed, which may look a little nasty but is safest for both the animal and others involved and guarantees a quick and trouble-free experience.

While one person is cutting the alpaca, the other walks around checking claws and teeth and collecting the wool fiber. If the alpaca becomes nervous, as inexperienced alpacas often do, a third person holding the alpaca at the head usually has a calming effect.

It all takes 10-15 minutes, and if the weather is beautiful, you usually get to see the alpacas roll, jump and run out to enjoy the sun afterward.

Alpacas are always cut in the spring, as the thick wool would make the summer unbearable for them. Surial packs can be cut every two years because their wool does not insulate as well as huacayans.

Frequently Asked Questions And Fun Alpaca And Llama Facts

How Much Does An Alpaca Cost?

Like most animals, the cost of an alpaca depends on a number of factors. These include its lineage, breeding, quality of fiber, age and so on. On average, an alpaca will cost between $3000 and $10,000, however, they can sell for as much as $50,000.

Do Alpacas Smell Bad?

Alpacas are actually very clean animals and like cats, prefer a communal litter box. In general alpacas do not smell bad as they will instinctively create their own litter box if one is not provided for them.

How Long Does An Alpaca Live?

On average, Alpacas live to the ripe old age of 20. Outliving many of our favorite family pets such as cats and dogs, but not quite as long as some feathered friends like parrots that can live up to 80 years.

Llama vs Alpaca Wool

Alpacas produce significantly more fleece than their camelid family members, despite their smaller size. The quality of alpaca wool is also of superior quality with the soft fiber of royal baby alpaca being considered one of the best in the world.

Llama breeders also use baby llama fiber for spinning yarn. Although their coarse outer coat is not normally suitable for clothing, they have a soft undercoat which has similarities to wool in terms of feel and weight but is significantly warmer.

Do Alpacas Spit Like Llamas?

“Do alpacas spit” is a really common question among the potential alpaca farmer.

Alpacas and llamas are amazing animals but like all camelid species they do spit. However, where a camel will spit solely because it is annoyed, an alpaca will only spit when it feels threatened as a last line of defense.

Even llamas who are known to spit more than alpacas will only do so if you’ve put them in a really bad mood.

Llama vs Alpaca Temperament

Llamas are well known as very good guard animals and work well as livestock. Whereas alpacas are quite shy herd animals which is why they tend to make better pets.

Do Alpacas And Llamas Have Tails?

Yes, both alpacas and llamas have tails although they are different. Like the llamas banana-shaped ears and long necks, a llamas tail, which comes straight off their backs, is one of the physical differences between llamas and alpacas. An alpacas tail is sloped down its back. 

Llama vs Alpaca Hooves

Neither llamas or alpacas have hooves like other livestock. Instead, similar to other South American camelids, have soft, padded feet with two toenails. 

Do Alpacas Like To Be Petted?

Unlike household pets, alpacas tend to prefer not to be touched. However, on some occasions they may be happy being petted, like with their main caregiver or favorite family member.

Llamas Vs Alpacas: Summary

Both Llamas and alpacas are amazing pack animals originating from North America. Although both are a descendant of camelids, it’s a common misconception that llamas and alpacas are the same. But the differences between alpacas and llamas are vast, from their physical appearance to their main purpose as breeds of livestock.

An alpaca herd is mainly used for fleece production in order to create many saught after alpaca garments including alpaca wool sweaters, socks and blankets. Whereas llamas, less used for their animal fibers, make wonderful guard animals and livestock. 

If you’re a fan of these cute animals, check out more of our articles for the ultimate camelid knowledge!

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