8 Things You Didn't Know About Llamas

three llamas at a fence
Llamas are native to the mountains of South America.

Ramona Edwards / Shutterstock

Hairy and quirky, gentle and friendly, llamas are often confused with their cousins, the alpacas. Both are members of a group called camelids, which also includes camels, guanacos and vicunas.

Native to the mountainous region of South America, llamas were first imported to the U.S. in the late 1800s to be shown off as "oddities" in zoos. Today there are more than 158,000 llamas in the U.S. and Canada, according to the South Central Llama Association.

Other than being incredibly cute, here are some other bits of trivia about these captivating critters.

1. Llamas have been used as pack animals for centuries

Stream crossing while llama trekking
Llamas are hardly trekkers and can easily carry loads for many miles a day. wanderluster / Getty Images

Native people of the Andes Mountains have saddled the mostly willing animals to move goods over the area's grueling terrain. Carrying loads of up to 75 pounds, llamas can typically travel as many as 20 miles a day, says National Geographic. Sometimes hundreds of them make up pack trains, efficiently transporting items en masse.

Occasionally, their patience is tested. You've heard "stubborn as a mule"? Alpacas can also have an attitude if they decide they're done for the day. A llama carrying too much of a load may just refuse to move or will lie down on the ground. The irritated animals may also hiss, spit, or kick until their load is lightened.

2. They show displeasure

llama making a face
An unhappy llama will stick out its tongue or even spit at another llama. Ian Dyball / Shutterstock

Llamas don't exactly keep their feelings to themselves. All camelids stick out their tongues to express their irritation, according to the Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine. It that doesn't send the message, spitting is also an option.

Llamas typically spit to establish pecking order within their herd or to tell an unwanted suitor to back off, says the South Central Llama Association. They'll also spit at another llama just as a warning to get them to get out of their space.

Llamas will spit at other llamas in order to establish the pecking order within the group, to ward off an unwanted suitor, or to say "stop it!"

A llama can spit green, somewhat-digested food an impressive 10 feet or even farther, according to Successful Farming. Although the other llama might get the message, the spitter typically regrets their actions. The regurgitated gunk tastes gross and will cause the llama a few unpleasant moments afterwards.

3. They are different than alpacas

While they look like their cousins, there are lots of subtle differences, points out Modern Farmer. Llamas are taller and weight more than alpacas. Alpacas weigh an average of about 150 pounds while llamas can weigh as much as 400 pounds or more. An alpaca can be about 34 to 36 inches at the shoulder, while a llama typically is between 42 and 46 inches tall.

Llamas have long, banana-shaped ears, while alpacas have short, pear-shaped ears. Llamas also have longer faces, while alpacas have more of a shorter, blunt face, what they describe as a “smooshed in” look.

While alpacas love being part of a herd, llamas are more independent. Llamas are also less skittish than alpacas.

4. They communicate by humming

Mama llamas often hum to communicate with their babies, called crias. Regular humming helps the babies learn to recognize their mothers, according to the Michigan Llama Association. Llamas also hum for lots of other reasons, like when they're anxious, tired, uncomfortable, excited, or just curious. Listen above to the humming llamas excited for breakfast at Little Utah Farm.

Humming isn't the only unusual sound they make. When a male is interested in a female, he'll often make a gargling noise, called an orgle. Female llamas also make clicking noises.

5. They make good guard animals

A llama grazes with sheep in a pasture.
A llama acts as a protector, grazing with sheep in a pasture. syazana nadz / Shutterstock

Llamas are sometimes called upon for protection duties. Farmers will make them guardian animals in herds of small animals like sheep, goats, and even alpacas. They'll stay brave and vigilant, boldly chasing off predators like coyotes, according to the Michigan Llama Association. Always on alert, these protectors also like to be friends with their flocks. Sometimes they'll adopt smaller livestock as their personal herd, taking on responsibilities as their friend and watch-llama. Smart and not skittish, they're able to discern if an interloper is friend or foe and will chase off a coyote and ignore a friendly dog.

6. They could help prevent the flu one day

Researchers are working to create a universal flu vaccine that would be effective against every strain of the flu, and llamas are playing a big part of the research. Scientists have developed a nasal spray derived from several llama antibodies that works by targeting many strains of the flu all at once. So far it's only in rodent trials, but this one has potential, researchers say. That would mean that you wouldn't need a new flu shot every year and coverage would be more significant.

7. Llamas are used as therapy animals

Hospice Cares For Terminally Ill During Final Stage Of Life
Therapy llama Pisco visits a hospice care patient in Colorado. John Moore / Getty Images

Like Labradors and miniature horses, there's something soothing about llamas. They can be trained as professional comforters, working as therapy animals in hospital, schools and nursing homes.

One of the better-known therapy llamas was Rojo of Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas near Portland, Oregon. He became a bit of a celebrity for all of his visits to children's hospitals, senior communities, and schools. He was the subject of two children's books and made many media appearances before passing away at age 17.

Writes Mtn Peaks about their therapy llamas and alpacas: "During a typical therapy visit, our animals might take a walk with an adolescent child struggling with difficult issues, or motivate a patient recovering from a stroke to reach farther, or calm a child with autism so that she can focus, and achieve new goals."

8. They're easy keepers

You don't need much land to keep a llama happy. Llamas and their cousins the alpacas need less land and food than many other farm animals, according to Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Depending on the quality of the pasture, one acre of land is enough to sustain four llamas (or as many as five to 10 alpacas). That's compared to cows, for example, which need about two acres each, according to the Cooperative Extension System.

Unlike other animals which can destroy pasture when they graze, llamas and alpacas trim the grass instead of pulling it up by the roots. They also walk gently on the land, so they don't tend to make gouges or furrows with their feet.