South America Living

Is it a Llama or an Alpaca & What is the Difference?

by Molly McHugh, Former Editor/Publisher of South America Living.     About the Author

When traveling by bus through southwest Bolivia from Uyuni to Potosi I told my son “There are more llamas in Bolivia than people!”. Not true, of course, but at the time it sure did seem that way. Packs upon packs of the beautiful creatures viewed from the window from any direction I happened to look.

I may have been mistaken however, and should have exclaimed: “There are more ALPACAS in Bolivia than people!” as I did not really know the difference. I could guess which was which easily enough but what characteristics identify one from the other?

Satisfied in my average level of alpaca vs. llama discerning intelligence, I had no reason to think further on the matter until I had to identify two animals in a photo taken in Chivay, Peru; one 3-month-old baby that I was told was a ‘llama’ and one older animal that I assumed was its mother (view photo below). When writing photo captions it isn’t a great idea to be assuming anything.

I published the photo with a caption reading “3 Month Old Baby Llama with Mother… “. Then as I always do viewed the page a day later to see if any changes needed to be made. Wait a minute… that sure doesn’t look like an animal and its baby… it looks like two entirely different creatures!

Alpaca and 3 Month Old Baby Llama Sitting with Peruvian Mother and Daughter

The photo caption has been updated to “Alpaca and 3 Month Old Baby Llama…”, thanks to these online resources:

Difference Between a Llama and Alpaca
Alpaca and Llama Differences

You can tell in my photo that the baby is a llama and the adult an alpaca because:

1. Llamas are generally twice the size of alpacas.
2. Llamas have banana-shaped ears i.e. curved instead of straight.

Many other interesting facts about these two species include:

1. They are both Camelids from South America, with llamas migrating from North America around 2.5 million years ago. Source: Llama Facts
2. Llamas have now been selectively bred to produce soft, silky wool (breeding out the ‘guard hair’ or course undercoat). Originally they were bred for size and strength as pack-bearing, cart-pulling animals. Now there are two types of llama breeding – one for wool, the other for working animals that retains the course undercoat necessary for weather protection.
3. Alpacas are bred primarily for fiber production and in ancient Inca culture their wool used only to make clothing for royalty. Presently in South America they are valued for their meat as well as their natural fiber and in many areas the primary source of meat protein used by a local population.
4. There is a much higher entry-barrier to becoming an alpaca breeder as opposed to a llama breeder; the cost of quality alpacas ranges from $20,000 – $50,000 USD while quality llama stock costs between $5,000 and $20,000 USD.
5. There are an estimated 7 million llamas and alpacas in South America. Source: Llama FAQ

Photograph by Molly McHugh, all rights reserved.

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