The llama (Lama glama) is a graceful—though sometimes ill-tempered—animal that was domesticated from the wild guanaco (Lama guanicoe) thousands of years ago by native people of South America. Today, llamas are extremely useful animals found on farms and ranches around the world.
The llama and its wild ancestor, the guanaco, are the largest members of the camel family (Camelidae) in the Americas. The camels of Africa and Asia are much larger than llamas, however. Other members of the camel family native to South America are the vicuna and its domesticated descendent, the alpaca.
Llamas and camels belong to a larger group (an “order”) of hoofed mammals called Artiodactyla, which also includes deer and pigs. The animals in this order all have an even number of toes on each foot. Llamas have two large toes—which are covered with toenails instead of true hoofs—on each foot. Hoofed mammals in the order Perissodactyla, such as horses and rhinoceroses, have an odd number of toes on each foot.
Where Llamas Live
The native habitat of llamas and guanacos is the cold and dry Andes Mountains region of South America, including parts of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. The sure-footed llamas run easily over the rugged mountaintops at elevations as high as 13,000 feet.
The air at such high elevations contains little oxygen—a condition that would make breathing very difficult for most other animals. Llamas can live in this extreme environment because their blood contains an unusually large amount of hemoglobin, the substance in the blood that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body tissues.
The Llama’s Body
Like other members of the camel family, the llama has a long neck and long legs. Unlike camels, however, the llama has no humps on its back. Llamas stand about four feet high at the shoulders. From head to tail, a llama is roughly four feet long. Llamas typically weigh approximately 300 pounds.
Llamas have very thick and long hair. Over the centuries, people have bred llamas so that their hair has various colors and color combinations, including black, brown, gray, tan, white, and yellow. The llamas’ guanaco ancestor, by contrast, has hair that is mostly brown.
Llamas are herbivores (plant eaters) that graze on mostly grasses. They also eat low-growing shrubs and lichens (crustlike combinations of algae and fungi that often grow on rocks). Llamas break off plant material by clipping it between their large lower teeth and hard gums. These hardy animals need to drink very little water, getting most of their moisture from the plants that they eat.
Llamas, like cattle, are ruminants. In other words, they chew their cud, which is partly digested plant material regurgitated from the stomach to be chewed and swallowed again.
Llamas have interesting personalities. People in South America value llamas as “beasts of burden” because the animals are able to carry loads of more than 130 pounds for distances as far as 20 miles a day. However, llamas can be stubborn. When they decide they have worked hard enough for the day, they will simply lie down and refuse to budge.
When a llama becomes angry or frightened, it will spit the smelly contents of its stomach into the face of an enemy. Female llamas sometimes spit at male llamas when the males are bothering them too much.
Llamas are fast and graceful runners, able to reach speeds of about 35 miles per hour. This swiftness helps them escape from predators, such as puma and ocelots.
Llamas live in herds made up of 4 to 10 breeding females, a single adult male, and the females’ offspring from the current year. The male protects the other members of the herd and drives away any other male of breeding age. Adult males sometimes get into loud growling fights, in which they bite each other and wrestle by wrapping their long necks around each other.
The male typically mates with the females of the herd in late summer or early autumn. Each female gives birth to a single young llama (called a cria), which weighs roughly 24 pounds. The cria is able to stand and run only one hour after its birth.
Young llamas nurse on their mothers’ milk for three to five months. They then start eating plant food. When male llamas are a year old, the adult male in the herd drives them out of the group. They then try to form their own herds of females. Llamas can mate when they are two years old.
Some llamas have lived on farms and ranches for more than 20 years. However, most llamas live about 15 or 16 years.
Amazingly Useful Animals
The native people of the Andes Mountains domesticated the llama from the guanaco 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. They used llamas for many purposes in addition to carrying heavy loads. The llamas’ fleece (shorn hair) was used to make clothing and ropes. Their hides were used to make sandals. Their meat was used for food, and their fat for candles. When the Spanish arrived in South America in the 1500’s, the Inca Indians were using 300,000 llamas as beasts of burden in silver mines.
Today, llamas continue to be amazingly useful animals. They are raised on farms and ranches in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia, mainly for their high-quality fleece but also for food and for pets. A llama is typically sheared every two years, yielding six to seven pounds of fleece at a time.
Llamas also make excellent guard animals. They will protect herds of sheep, goats, and horses by driving away predators and other enemies.
Article Written By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz
MAIN SOURCES USED IN RESEARCH:
- World Book Online: Llama article, 2008.
- David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors. Smithsonian Institution Animal. Dorling Kindersley Publishers, 2001.
- Ronald M. Novak, John L. Paradiso. Walker's Mammals of the World, 4th ed. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.