Camels, Guanacos, Llamas, Alpacas, and Vicuñas: Camelidae

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The average height of camels is 6 to 7.5 feet (1.8 to 2.3 meters), and vicuñas, guanacos, llamas, and alpacas are 3 to 4.3 feet (.90 to 1.3 meters) tall. Camels weigh between 1,000 and 1,800 pounds (454 to 816 kilograms); vicuñas, guanacos, llamas, and alpacas weigh between 88.8 and 265.5 pounds (40 to 120 kilograms).

Camelidae have long, thin necks, small heads, and slender snouts. Their tough mouths allow them to eat thick grasses and thorny plants without pain. Camels have kneepads which protect them as they fold their legs beneath their bodies to rest.

Each foot has two flat toes. Their thick coats protect them from cold temperatures, and only the camel sheds its hair as temperatures rise. Camels also have special muscles that allow them to close their nostrils and lips for long periods of time so that they do not breathe in large amounts of sand or snow.

Camels also have humps that store fat as a source of energy when food reserves are low. The better they eat, the fatter the hump or humps grow.


Camelidae are found from the Arabian Peninsula to Mongolia, and in western and southern South America. Alpaca and llamas are now found throughout North America since they have become popular ranch animals.


Wild camelids live in the desert and semi-arid environments that have a long dry season and short rainy season. Guanacos live in warm and cold grasslands up to 13,120 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level, while vicuñas live in grasslands of the Andes Mountains above 11,482 feet (3,500 meters).


Camelids need very little water. They graze on various grasses and salty plants, which help them retain what little water they do drink. Dromedaries and guanacos drink salty water no other animals could tolerate.

Both kinds of camel eat thorny desert shrubs as well as any other vegetation found in desert or semi-arid regions. Like some other mammals, they do not chew their food completely before swallowing it. After eating, they regurgitate, bring up from the stomach, the food, re-chew it, swallow again, and digest it.


Camelids are active during the day. All species will spit or kick when threatened.

Bactrian camels usually live in herds of up to thirty individuals, concentrating in the mountain areas where there are springs and snow. Dromedaries form three types of herds during the mating season. One type is that comprised of bachelor, or single, males. The next is made up of female-offspring couples, and those made up of up to thirty adult females along with their offspring, led by one adult male. Vicuñas maintain family groups of one territorial male and subadults as well as females and offspring less than a year old. The guanaco population lives in three social groups as well including families with one adult male and one or several females with their most recent offspring, male groups whose numbers may reach fifty, and solitary males. Because they are now raised domestically, llamas and alpacas have lost their social structure.

Camelids have numerous mates and do not bond with one another. After twelve to thirteen months of pregnancy, female camels give birth to one newborn, which can walk within a few hours of birth. Young remain with their mothers until the age of two years but they not considered adults until the age of five years. Female llamas and vicuñas also give birth to one offspring after an eleven-month pregnancy. The babies stay with the mother until one year of age.

Pumas and foxes are the primary predators of vicuñas and llamas, while alpacas fall prey to pumas and leopards. Camels have no known predators.


Camelids have been used for transportation as well as a food and clothing source for about seven thousand years. They are especially valuable as transportation in the North African and Asian deserts because they can travel up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) without water. They are also able to carry heavy loads and still keep a steady pace.

Camels are a sign of wealth to some desert populations. These species provide humans with milk, meat, and wool used to make clothing, blankets, and tents. The fat can be removed from their humps and melted for use in cooking.

Llamas and alpacas were domesticated thousands of years ago. Alpacas were first imported to the United States in 1984, and in 2004 there were more than fifty thousand registered alpacas in the United States. Llamas are believed to be domesticated, tamed, by about 4,000 b.c.e.

Vicuñas were used in religious rituals in the Inca empire. Guanacos provided food, hides, and fibers for South American cultures, but they have never been domesticated.


According to Lisa Olsen, an alpaca rancher in North Carolina, pregnant female alpacas can sell for $12,000 to $22,000 each. That is a nice profit considering that they are not very expensive to feed, since they live on hay, grass, and grains.

According to the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, the record for the highest dollar sale of a male alpaca was set in 2002, when a sire sold for $265,000. Like any other livestock ranching, alpaca breeding is a business, and it is gaining popularity.


Camels, alpacas, and llamas are not listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) because they are domestic animals. However, wild Bactrian camels are listed as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild, due to heavy hunting and competition with domestic livestock for water and land. Vicuñas and guanacos are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Vicuñas had been hunted almost to the point of extinction for their fur and meat.


Physical characteristics: Dromedary camels are 7 feet (2.1 meters) tall at the hump and weighs 1,600 pounds (726 kilograms). Their long neck is curved, and they have one hump. Hair is caramel brown or sandy brown, though shades can range from nearly black to white. The coat is long at the throat, shoulders, and hump area, and blocks the heat of the sun. The tail is short and the eyelashes are long.

Geographic range: Dromedary camels are found in dry regions of the Middle East through northern India, and in Africa, primarily the Sahara Desert. This camel has been introduced to Australia.

Habitat: Dromedary camels like the desert where temperatures often rise above 120°F (49°C).

Diet: Dromedary camels eat thorny plants, dry grasses, and salty plants that grow in the desert. Since they eat only a few leaves from each plant, their food supply is relatively stable. Because they do not drink much water, dromedary camels need six to eight times more

salt than other animals. Salt helps the body retain water. Dromedary camels do not sweat easily, so they lose moisture more slowly than other animals. Dromedary camels have been known to drink one-third of their weight in water within ten minutes.

Behavior and reproduction: Families include two to twenty individual camels, including one dominant male, several females, and offspring. The dominant male chases away competitor males by pushing them, snapping, and spitting.

Females are ready to mate by three years, males by six years. Pregnancy lasts up to fifteen months. Mothers nurse, feed with mother's milk, their offspring for one year. Because they have no predators, dromedary camels live anywhere from thirty to forty years.

Dromedary camels and people: Dromedary camels have been hunted for their meat and used as transportation for thousands of years. They are also valuable for their milk, wool, leather, and manure, which is used for fuel.

Conservation status: There are about fourteen million dromedary camels across the globe. They are not threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Alpacas reach 3 feet (.90 meters) high and weigh 154.3 pounds (70 kilograms). They have small heads, short, pointed ears, and extremely long necks. Except for the face and legs, the entire body is covered by long, thick, soft wool. Legs are short. Alpacas are generally a dark chocolate or near-black color, but the fibers used to make clothing come in twenty-two colors. Their coats are water repellant and protect them from solar radiation.

Geographic range: Alpacas live in the Andes of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. They live in high altitudes ranging from 9,840 to 15,750 feet (3,000 to 4,800 meters).

Habitat: Alpacas prefer grasslands of the high plateaus of the Andes.

Diet: Alpacas feed on grasses, shrubs, and trees. The digestive system of an alpaca is highly efficient, which allows them to thrive on poor vegetation where other animals could not.

Behavior and reproduction: Alpacas are gentle, even-tempered animals. They are friendly and show little sign of aggression, a fact that makes them easy to domesticate and raise commercially.

Females mate for the first time around two years, males around three years. Pregnancy lasts 324 to 345 days and results in one offspring, called a cria. Cria nurse for five or six months. The average lifespan is twenty to twenty-five years. Primary predators of wild alpacas are pumas and foxes.

Alpacas and people: When Spanish explorers arrived in Peru, they found the Incan culture to be based on textiles. In an effort to conquer the native peoples, the explorers slaughtered 90 percent of the alpaca population. As the natives went into hiding or escaped, they took with them both sexes of alpacas, thereby keeping the species alive. Today alpacas are ranch-raised for their wool. Their friendly personalities and resistance to disease make them easy to care for.

Conservation status: Alpacas are not threatened. There are about 3.5 million alpacas in the world. ∎


Physical characteristics: The average height of a llama is 3.8 feet (1.2 meters). They weigh around 309 pounds (140 kilograms). Legs are long, and the coat is a reddish-brown. Face, ears, and legs can be tainted black, white, or a mix of other colors.

Geographic range: Llamas live in Peru, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Habitat: Llamas live in high-altitude grasslands up to 13,120 feet (4,000 meters).

Diet: Llamas eat grasses and salty plants.

Behavior and reproduction: Llamas do not touch one another, not even in mother-offspring relationships. They are very herd-oriented and travel in groups. Llamas live to be older than twenty years.

Llamas are believed to have numerous mates. One male can mate with up to thirty females. Pregnancy lasts about eleven months.

Llamas and people: Llama fiber is used in making ropes, cowboy hats, and rugs. Their skin is used to make leather goods, and their bones make instruments for weaving looms. Their meat is low in fat, and because they move rather slowly, llamas are easy to catch. They make great pack animals and are used throughout the world for commercial mountain treks.

Conservation status: Llamas are not threatened. There were around 2.5 million llamas throughout the world in 2004. ∎



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Karr, Kathleen. Exiled: Memoirs of a Camel. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2004.

Nowak, Ronald M. "Guanaco, Llama, and Alpaca." Walker's Mammals of the World 5.1 Online. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. (accessed on May 28, 2004).


Freeman, Darren. "Alpaca Ranchers Spur Livestock Trend N.C. Farming Don't Worry—The Llama-Like Animals Don't Spit at People." The Virginian Pilot (March 28, 2004): Y1.

Web sites:

"About Alpacas." (accessed on May 28, 2004).

"Information About Camels." LlamaWeb. (accessed on May 28, 2004).

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Camels, Guanacos, Llamas, Alpacas, and Vicuñas: Camelidae

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