One of the most common animal faux pas is mistaking an alpaca for a llama and vice versa. This mistake has led to many alpaca vs. llama debates, as well as many articles like this one trying to help people clear up the differences.
While alpacas and llamas are the ones that are most commonly mixed up, there is also a lot of confusion when it comes to their more exotic cousins, the vicuña and guanaco. We firmly believe that the differences are important to know and will contribute richly to your life (think about how many people you’ll be able to impress with your camelid knowledge!) So hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll be able to tell the difference. You can even take our quiz to test your mastery.
Alpacas Vs. Llamas – How To Tell The Difference And Why It Matters
For some people, it may just be fun trivia to know how to tell llamas and alpacas apart. But if you’re ever going to be interacting with either one (say on a trip to Peru, or even at a petting zoo), it’s wise to know what animal you are approaching. Otherwise you may find yourself on the wrong end of an angry llama, and nobody wants that. So let’s break down some of the physical and behavioral characteristics of these camelids so that you can reliably tell them apart.
Alpacas are notably smaller than llamas. An alpaca stands around 3 feet (90cm) high at the shoulder, and around 5 feet tall at the head. On average, they weigh between 100-200 pounds.
Llamas, on the other hand, stand close to 3 1/2 to 4 feet tall at the shoulder, up to 6 feet at the head, and can weigh more than 400 pounds.
Face and Ears
Llamas have long faces and long, banana-shaped ears. They also tend to have relatively short hair on their face.
Alpacas have shorter, stubbier ears and faces, and are more likely to have fluffy faces (which means even more points for cuteness.) If you’re hanging out with a camelid and its face looks kind of like a teddy bear or an Ewok, it’s probably an alpaca.
Beyond the fuzziness of the face, alpacas tend to be one fairly consistent color throughout, with a more or less even length of coat. Their fleece is also very soft to the touch.
Llamas often have more mottled or varied coats and their fiber is much coarser.
Alpacas are timid animals, and are generally quite nervous about everything around them. They are very much herd animals and will often be in groups. Alpacas can spit, but very rarely do so (especially at humans).
Llamas are more aggressive, more confident, and less likely to clump together in large groups. They are very protective animals as well, so try not to threaten them or anything hanging around them. There’s a reason ranchers often put llamas in with sheep and other vulnerable livestock – they’ll wreck anything they perceive as a threat to their little herd!
Why Does It Matter?
Again, for many people, this is just fun random trivia. But while we’re at it, let’s add a little more to that store of knowledge you’re building up in your brain by talking about some of the uses of these two camelids.
Alpacas and llamas have very different uses. Alpacas are primarily used for their fiber, which is very soft. You’ll often see high-end alpaca socks, hats, and sweaters for sale in specialty stores and online. These products are hypoallergenic, breathe well, are naturally moisture-wicking, and are also flame retardant for good measure!
Llamas are frequently used as guardian animals for sheep and other livestock, and can be used as pack animals as well. In some areas of the world, llamas are used for meat.
Again, if you’re going to be spending any amount of time around these critters, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. Since llamas are much more aggressive than alpacas, you should know that before approaching one so you don’t find yourself in a bad situation. While it’s not perfectly accurate (he forgot to include that a llama once beat Chuck Norris in a fight), this comparison chart from Obvious Plant actually sums up the differences pretty well. And it helps you understand why you might want to know the difference.
Alpacas vs. Vicuñas
If you saw this picture, would you assume it was an alpaca?
If you answered yes, you would be wrong! The above picture is actually of a vicuña, which is the wild cousin of the alpaca. Vicuñas are much rarer than alpacas or llamas (so rare that they are a protected species – though they are making a comeback), and their fleece is even more sought after than alpaca fleece. They are smaller and daintier than alpacas, and they’re only sheared once every three years. This is done partly for profit, and partly to stave off poachers who would otherwise kill them for their fiber. Yes, it’s that soft and warm – if you have an item of clothing made from vicuña fleece, you might be actual royalty (or have a similar-sized pocketbook.)
You can distinguish them from alpacas by their coloring and coat length. Unlike alpacas, vicuñas do not come in a variety of colors. They will always be a reddish-brown with some white areas, especially under the belly and chin. Since they grow less fleece, they also usually look less fluffy and all-around more delicate.
Llamas Vs. Guanacos
While the main purpose of this website is to inform people about alpacas, it seems important to touch on the subject of the other camelids in the family as well. Guanacos are also undomesticated and fairly uncommon, though not as endangered as the vicuña. Guanacos are larger than vicuñas and alpacas, but smaller than llamas.
The easiest way to tell if you’re looking at a guanaco is by coloring. Guanacos almost always have brown backs, gray faces, and white underbellies/undernecks. Much like llamas, guanacos have coarse coats. But they lack llamas’ large, banana-shaped ears. And their anger issues.
If you need a quick reference on how to tell South American camelids apart, you can use this simple chart.
Test Your Knowledge!
To see how well you can tell the difference between a llama and alpaca (as well as guanacos and vicuñas), take the flashcard quiz below. There isn’t any scoring and there aren’t really any points, it is just for fun (and perhaps for a few bragging rights with your friends or family).