Alpacas vs. Llamas


What are the similarities and differences between alpacas and llamas? We get asked these questions frequently when we talk about alpaca and where it comes from.

Alpacas and llamas are similar animals and that is why they get easily confused. But the aspects that make them different are significant, especially when it comes to the fashion industry. In this article, I explore what makes these 2 animals similar and different so that you can understand them better.

Let’s start talking about what they have in common:

They belong to the same family

Both alpacas and llamas belong to the camelid family. South American camelids migrated from North to South America continent about 2 million years ago. They are related to camels and dromedaries, so we can say that camels and dromedaries are distant cousins of the South American camelids.

Llamas and Alpacas come from the same place

The largest population of llamas and alpacas in the world are found in the Andean mountains of Bolivia and Peru. They may also be naturally found in smaller numbers in other Andean countries, but Bolivia and Peru hold the largest population of these animals.

They are both Domesticated Animals

There are four species of South American Camelids. These are: Vicuñas, Guanacos, Llamas, and Alpacas. Out of these 4, Llamas and Alpacas are the two species that have been domesticated successfully by man. Vicuñas and Guanacos live in the wild and prefer to have little or no contact with humans. Alpacas and llamas, on the other hand, show curiosity towards human beings and like interacting with them.

Alpacas and Llamas come from high altitudes

Alpacas and llamas are equipped to thrive at high altitudes. They both have hair that insulates them well from climate conditions and are capable of enduring low temperatures and harsh climate conditions. Alpacas usually live in altitudes up to 4,500 meters above the sea level, and llamas are found at altitudes up to 5,500 meters above the sea level.

I’m sure we can find more similarities between alpacas and llamas, but I believe that these are the more relevant ones. Now, let’s talk about the things that make them different:

Size

First and foremost, llamas are taller and heavier than alpacas. Llamas are about 8” taller than alpacas and they weight between 200 and 400 pounds, while alpacas only reach a weight of 150 to 200 pounds. The fact that llamas are big and strong makes them well suited to be used as pack animals.

Face

Alpacas and llamas may look similar at first sight, but if you look carefully, their faces are different. First, llamas have long banana shaped ears. Alpacas, on the other hand, have shorter and pointy ears. Alpacas also have a shorter nose and a smaller face than llamas do. Finally, llamas tend to have little or no hair on their face, while alpacas may have hair all around their face.

Fiber or fleece

Alpaca fiber has traditionally been considered much finer and better quality than llama’s fiber. On average, commercial alpaca fleece has a thickness of 20-28 microns, while llama fleece of that thickness is harder to obtain. Most of llama wool goes from 25-34 microns, making it significantly thicker and coarser than alpaca wool.

Until recently, it was possible to obtain fine hair or fiber from alpacas and not from llamas. Thanks to new technology, however, it is now possible to get rid of the thick and coarse hair from llama’s fleece and obtain fine fiber, similar to alpaca’s wool. But this is another topic that can be extensively discussed in another post.

Domestication Purposes

This brings up this next aspect. Because it was possible to obtain fine fiber from alpacas and not so from llamas, alpacas were domesticated mainly for their fiber or wool. This wool has traditionally been used to make clothing and that is why indigenous communities have raised alpaca herds for thousands of years.

On the other hand, llamas are sturdier animals that are capable of carrying much more weight than alpacas. Llamas have thus been raised and herded by indigenous communities to serve as pack animals and for their meat. Llama meet is low in cholesterol and it tastes similar to beef.

Personality

Both alpacas and llamas show curiosity towards humans. Having said that, alpacas are known to be more on the shy side and to be friendlier to humans than llamas. Alpacas may spit if they feel threatened, while llamas may spit because they just don’t like you! This is the reason why some alpaca herders use llamas to protect their alpaca herds.  

Alpacas also show more interest in learning tricks or obeying orders from humans, while llamas are known to resist orders from humans.

As you can see, alpacas and llamas may share a lot of similarities, but their fiber and size have given them different roles when it comes to their relationship with humans. Even now, alpacas are much more valued for their fiber and are raised for that purpose, while llamas are still mainly used for their meet and as pack animals.

In terms of our products and the fashion industry, alpaca is still the go-to fiber. At a very small scale, a few brands, mostly in Europe, work with llama wool, while alpaca is widely used by brands from all over the world. This doesn’t mean that in the near future, llama wool won’t find its place in mainstream fashion. It just may take a few more years for that to happen.