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Friday, December 12, 2014

What's the difference between llamas and alpacas?

“What’s the difference between llamas and alpacas? Do people use them for different things?”

Upon seeing another patron’s alpaca-wool winter coat, one of our patrons was led to wonder about what separates a llama from an alpaca. Do llamas produce wool as well? What else are they used for?

Llama and alpaca farmers seem to have noticed that people are curious about their animals, because most of their websites included a fact section, often listing the differences between the two. We took our information from, Storey’s Guide to Raising Llamas by Gale Birutta, Jennifer A. Kingson’s New York Times article “The Llama Is In,” and the websites of Rising Sun Exotics, Bald Hill Alpaca Farm, and Serendipity Farm.

When a llama and an alpaca are side by side, it’s easy to see the differences. Llamas are about twice as big, with straight backs and long noses. Alpacas have shorter, rounder snouts and more delicate features, with a large puff of hair on their heads that often falls over their eyes. Their ears point straight up, while llamas’ ears curve toward each other in a “banana” shape.

Alpacas are better known for it, and their wool has been prized since the Incan Empire. While llamas have two coats, the soft, dense fleece coat and then a coarse topcoat of guard hair, alpacas have only the fleece, so their wool is of a much higher quality. Relatively recently, however, some llamas are bred to have little to no guard hair, so as to improve the quality of their wool.

While alpacas were bred for their wool, llamas were meant to be pack animals. They can carry about a quarter of their weight, navigate difficult terrain, and their padded feet minimize damage to the environment. Storey’s Guide to Raising Llamas recommends them as hiking companions.

Llamas typically have a more confident personality than the timid alpaca, but both animals will spit if provoked, though their owners often insist that they get a bad rap and in fact spit much less frequently than people expect. Llamas’ bold natures can make them effective livestock guardians, but many are also docile and well-behaved enough to serve as therapy animals. The owners interviewed in “The Llama Is In” liken their llamas to dogs and note that they often have a special sense as to who needs them most. Therapy and “ambassador” llamas have made successful visits to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and even libraries.

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