The Camelids of South America


Most of what we know about South American camelids is their hair. The fleece of these animals contains no lanolin, so it is hypoallergenic, and though not waterproof, it makes warm lightweight garments. The llama and guanaco both have an outer layer of coarser hair and an inner layer of softer hair. The alpaca and vicuna have no outer layer. The softness of guanaco fleece is between that of the alpaca and vicuna. Though one needn’t travel to Argentina or schedule Peru tours to purchase a wonderful South American camelid garment, you’ll find much lower prices if you do.

Peru exports 4,000 tons of alpaca fleece each year but only three tons of vicuna fleece, both tiny amounts compared to how much sheep’s wool is exported by other countries. Vicuna fleece is the world’s most expensive and one of its softest natural fibers. It sells for over $200 a pound raw and from $1,500 to $3,000 a yard as fabric on the world market to be made into designer clothing. The economics are easy to understand, considering the shearing of each vicuna produces only up to a half-pound of wool, and shearing can occur no more often than every two years.

The unique fleece of South America’s camelids allows them to inhabit high elevation climates. Vicunas and guanacos are wild animals, though they are herded and sheared in temporary captivity, and efforts are underway in some places to hold and raise them. The domesticated llama and alpaca species are raised commercially, primarily in South America. All four species eat grasses. Llamas and alpacas also receive hay from their owners, and the adult guanaco is tall enough to add tree leaves to its diet. Guanacos are the fastest of the South American camelids, capable of running up to forty miles per hour. A vicuna can run about thirty miles per hour.

Like camels, the South American camelids are known to spit, for a variety of reasons, usually to express a sentiment in the realm of, “Get lost, buster.” Pregnant llamas spit to inform males that they are not interested in being wooed. Guanacos may spit when threatened or when they attack. Alpacas sometimes spit to express their displeasure.

Mating causes the females to ovulate, and breeding takes place again a few weeks after giving birth. A South American camelid’s newborn is called a cria. In the guanaco species, the offspring is referred to as a chulengo. The South American camelid habit of giving birth in the early morning hours is a plus in the wild, providing vicuna and guanaco newborns the best chance of survival through their first precarious day before temperatures plunge at night. These species live about twenty years and slightly longer in captivity.