Llamas are the South American member of the camel family, Camelidae that includes alpaca, guanaco and vicuna and collectively known as Lamoids. The history of the llamas dates back 40 million years in the central plains of North America, but they became extinct from the region during the Ice Age. However, some of them migrated to South America and became prominent in the Andean Mountains. During the late 1800s and early 1900s llamas were imported into North America and today there are an estimated 350,000 llamas in the United States and Canada.
Although lamoids belong to camelids, unlike the camels, they do not have the characteristic camel humps. They are slender-bodied mammals with an average height of five feet five inches to six feet, weighing 150 kg to 200 kg and have a distinct look with their long legs, long necks, short tails, small heads, large eyes, rounded muzzles, cleft upper lips and curved, pointed ears. They have nails and not hoofs in their two-toed feet, which are equipped with a thick and leathery pad on the sole of each foot.
Llamas have long and shaggy pelage of varied colours that include white, grey, brown, reddish or a combination of colours, which can grow from three to eight inches. However, their heads, undersides and legs are covered with short hair. Their thick coat helps them to withstand the cold, wind, snow and rain, while the short hair found in some particular areas of the llama’s body help to dissipate heat when placed in warmer environments. They have an unusually high content of haemoglobin in their bloodstream and oval-shaped red blood corpuscles, both of which contribute to their ability to adapt and live in an oxygen-poor, high altitude environment.
Like many other animals, llamas also have scent glands, located on the lower, outside of the rear legs and between the toes, which are suspected to be an alarm mechanism, but it may also help in regulating the body temperature. There is another gland on the inner surface of the rear leg, called the tarsal gland, by which the llamas identify individuals within the herd.
Like other members of the camelidae family, llamas have distinctive teeth. In the upper jaw of a male llama, a compressed, sharp and pointed incisor near the hinder edge of the premaxilla is followed by at least a moderate-sized, pointed, curved true canine in the anterior part of the maxilla and in the lower jaw, the three incisors are long, spatulate and procumbent and the outer ones are the smallest. Though the llamas have a stomach with three compartments, they are considered as ruminants that have a stomach with four compartments. They regurgitate their partially digested food intake, called cud, from the first chamber of their stomach and chew it again to complete the digestive process.
Llamas mainly graze on grass and also consume low shrubs and different mountain vegetation. They need little water as they can obtain water from the food they consume. Their excrement is dried and burned for fuel.
The Andean highlands, specifically the Altiplano of southeast Peru and western Bolivia, are the natural habitats of the llama. The llamas and the alpacas are domestic animals, not known to exist in the wild state. Their wild relatives are guanacos and vicuñas. The history of the domestication of the llama dates back approximately 3,000 to 5,000 years, which makes them one of the oldest domesticated animals in the world. Most herds of llamas are maintained by the Native Indians of many countries in Soth America that include Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina. The Native Indians have mainly used the sturdy llamas as pack animals for centuries. Typically, they are saddled with loads of 50 to 75 pounds. Under such weight, they can cover up to 20 miles in a single day, even along the rough terrain of the Andes. Usually, the llama is a gentle animal, but if overloaded or mistreated they would refuse to move and sometimes would hiss, spit, kick and lie down. Although primarily a pack animal, the llamas are also used as a source of food, wool, tallow for candles, hides and dried dung for fuel.
Within the herd, llamas communicate with gentle clucking, ogling or hums and the movements of the ear and tail. They use their high-pitched alarm calls when any danger is apprehended. They hum when they are uncomfortable, worried or calling the young ones. However, they use different pitches to differentiate the meaning of their hum. The hum, similar to the sound of gurgling is made by the males while mating or they approach a female.
Clucking is used for flirting or meeting a new llama. Rapid flickering of the little tail, with the head held high, usually indicates displeasure, which is common of a pregnant female who wants to detour an approaching male. Llamas are known to spit at each other in self-defence and before the spitting, they would lay back their ears and posture their head very high in the air.
Usually, the lifespan of a llama is 20 years, but can vary between 15 and 30 years. Although the female llamas attain puberty at about the age of twelve months, males do not become sexually mature until around three years of age. As the females do not go into estrus or period of heightened sexual arousal and activity, they are induced ovulators, so they ovulate within 24 to 36 hours after mating. The female releases an egg through the act of mating and is often fertilized on the first attempt. Strangely, the llamas mate in a lying down position and they mate for quite an extended time of 20 to 45 minutes, which is also unusual in a large animal. Usually one cria or baby llama is born after a gestation period of approximately 350 days. The crias begin walking within an hour of birth and begin nursing within one to two hours and nurse on milk from the mother for up to five or six months.