8 Things You Didn't Know About Llamas

llamas posing in high desert
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Llamas are known as the quirky, long-necked animals that notoriously spit and occasionally hum. They're often confused for alpacas, their close relatives, as both are members of a group called camelids, which also includes camels, guanacos, and vicunas. Native to the mountains of South America, llamas (known scientifically and somewhat comically as Lama glama) were first imported to the U.S. in the late 1800s to be shown off as oddities in zoos. Today, there are more than 170,000 llamas in the U.S. and Canada, according to the International Llama Registry. Learn more about these peculiar creatures and what makes them such good therapy animals.

1. Llamas Have Been Used as Pack Animals for Centuries

A woman crossing a stream with a llama carrying goods.
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Native people of the Andes Mountains have historically saddled the (mostly willing) animals to move goods over the area's grueling terrain. Carrying loads of up to 75 pounds, llamas can travel as many as 20 miles a day. Sometimes hundreds of them make up pack trains, efficiently transporting items en masse.

Occasionally, when their patience is tested, they lie down or refuse to move. (Ever heard the phrase "stubborn as a mule"?) The irritated animals may also hiss, spit, or kick until their load is lightened.

2. They Show Displeasure

llama sticking its tongue out
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When angry, llamas may act aggressively. They'll often spit to establish pecking order within their herd or to ward off an unwanted suitor. Their spit is sometimes green, the result of half-digested food, and can be flung 10 feet or more, but don't worry: They rarely spit on humans. Llamas will also kick, bite, or charge if they feel threatened.

3. They Differ From Alpacas

While they look extremely similar to alpacas, there are many subtle differences between the two. For instance, llamas tend to be taller and weigh more than alpacas — the former stands about four feet at the shoulder and weighs between 280 and 350 pounds while the latter is about three feet tall at the shoulder and weighs between 120 and 145 pounds. Llamas also have long, banana-shaped ears while alpacas have short, pear-shaped ears. Llamas' faces are long whereas alpacas' are short and blunt, giving them a smooshed-in look. On a personality level, llamas are more independent than alpacas, which prefer to be around their herds.

4. They Communicate by Humming

Llamas are especially vocal. Mothers often hum to communicate with their babies, called crias, which eventually learn to recognize their mothers this way, according to the Michigan Llama Association. They also make this noise when they're anxious, tired, uncomfortable, excited, or just curious. In addition to humming, llamas make a unique gargling noise — called an "orgle" — then they're mating. Female llamas will sometimes make clicking noises.

5. They Make Good Guard Animals

A llama grazes with sheep in a pasture
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Llamas are sometimes called upon for protection duties. Farmers often use them to guard herds of small animals, like sheep, goats, and even alpacas, as they have been known to boldly chase off predators like coyotes. Always on alert, these protectors are also usually friendly with their flocks. Sometimes they'll even "adopt" smaller livestock as their personal herd, the Michigan Llama Association says.

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 virus, 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. If ever approved, it could replace the need for an annual flu shot.

7. Llamas Are Used as Therapy Animals

Like Labradors and miniature horses, llamas have a soothing aura about them. They can be trained as professional comforters, working as therapy animals in hospitals, schools, and nursing homes. One of the better-known therapy llamas was Rojo of Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas near Portland, Oregon. He became the subject of two children's books and made many media appearances before passing away at age 17.

8. They're Easy Keepers

It doesn't take much to make a llama happy. Llamas and alpacas require less land and food than many other farm animals — depending on the quality of the pasture, just an acre of land is enough to sustain four llamas (or as many as 10 alpacas). Cows, on the other hand, need about two acres each. Unlike other animals that can destroy pastures when they graze, llamas and alpacas trim the grass instead of pulling it up by the roots. They also walk gently on the land instead of making gouges or furrows with their feet.

View Article Sources
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  2. World Wide Statistics: Animals.” International Llama Registry.

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  5. Lama Pacos Alpaca.” University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

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