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Often nicknamed "the camels of the clouds" because of their affinity for thin air, alpacas and llamas are regal, beautiful creatures. Their richly colored fleece grows in tones of charcoal, rust, brown, silver and white. At first blush, the differences between a llama and an alpaca may seem subtle, but the two are actually quite distinct.
A llama, which is almost always silent except when it’s in distress, is an all-purpose beast of burden, bred primarily for toting packs that weigh up to 130 pounds. It’s not a saddle animal, but one could argue that it has a saddle built in. Its warm, coarse fleece is densely matted on the llama’s back to provide cushiony protection from the cargo. After a llama is sheared, its fiber is spun into rugs, clothing and even the fluffy part of fishing lures. None of it is wasted because even birds recycle leftover bits of it in their nests.
The Incas considered alpacas a gift from above because of their delicate fleece. Unlike llamas, which are workhorses, alpacas are raised primarily for their fine wool, which sometimes hangs to the ground.
There are two subspecies of alpacas: The Huacaya and the Suri. The Huacaya, with shorter, sheeplike fur, is more common. The Suri has long, lustrous hair that’s as soft as angora. While both are cold-weather aficionados, the Suri can tolerate warmer climes than the Huacaya.
Llamas and alpacas share similarities and DNA, which means they can mate and produce offspring. Usually, the head and face of the huarizo, the Spanish word for the crossbreed, resemble the llama, and the body remains small like an alpaca. Young llamas and alpacas are called cria, which is also Spanish, and loosely translates to baby.
Llamas and alpacas are herbivores. They enjoy sweet pasture grasses in an environmentally friendly way by munching only the tops of the plants and not the roots, so regrowth can occur. Note also that since they are vegetarians, if one were to offer a carrot to either an alpaca or llama, it wouldn’t be turned away.
And although alpacas look like they’re exotic creatures, they’re considered domestic and have been raised as livestock for thousands of years. The difference between them and, say, horses and cattle, is that their two-toed feet are soft and padded like a dog’s. This padding prevents them from damaging the fields and pastures in which they live.
Alpacas love a party and enjoy being part of a herd. Even so, they’re more skittish than llamas and hum if they become frightened or uneasy. They tend to stay in groups, which helps protect them against predators such as coyotes and big cats. Llamas share the herd mentality, but they’ll separate from the group for some alone time.
Because llamas are so intelligent, ranchers and farmers sometimes pair them with other livestock and their alpaca brethren as a security guard against predators.
Alpacas are smaller than llamas and weigh about 150 pounds. They top out at 175 pounds. The more muscular llama can tip the scales at 400 pounds. The diminutive alpaca stands about 3-feet tall at the shoulder, while its counterpart can reach almost 4 feet. Look for an alpaca to be more rounded, especially across its back, and for it to hold its tail close to its body. Llamas have longer backs, are more square and tend to stick their tail out into the wind.
Both alpacas and llamas resemble their desert-dwelling camel relatives. Each species has an expressive, doe-eyed look, and their long necks give them a dignified appearance. Upon closer inspection, the llama has a longer face than the alpaca, whose countenance is more like a camel’s. If you take a peek at the ears, you’ll notice that a llama’s ears are long and slightly curved inward. They look like a pair of parentheses. An alpaca’s ears are dainty, short and shaped more like a triangle. Both creatures have a keen sense of hearing and smell.
Alpacas and llamas do indeed spit. Some people believe that llamas spit just for spit’s sake, while alpacas only do it when provoked. That isn’t entirely true.
Some llamas and alpacas are just crabbier than others and spit with little provocation,” according to Living the Country Life, which interviewed an associate professor of large animal medicine at the University of Georgia.
If a llama lifts and then pins back its ears, it’s best to duck. They’ve even been known to spit at other llamas to settle disputes. When visiting an alpaca or llama farm, watch your shins. Despite their padded feet, both will kick like a rooster if you upset their apple cart. At the end of the day, even with their similarities and differences, a llama is a llama and an alpaca is an alpaca, and both are all about fun and fleece.