Llama, Lama glama

Llama, Lama glama

The llama (Lama glama) is a domesticated camelid from South America. It is often used as a pack animal or for meat by Andean cultures. Its hair is used to make clothing and handicrafts. The course outer hair is typically used to make lead ropes, rugs, and wall hangings, and the fibers can come in many colors ranging from black to reddish brown to white. Because of transportation and trade of this species, there are now more than 158,000 llamas and 100,000 alpacas in Canada and the United States.

The llama was first described as similar to a sheep, but it was quickly acknowledged as closer to the camel. In Systema Naturae, written by Linnaeus in 1758, the llama was described with the camel and alpaca, but Cuvier changed this classification in 1800, which placed it in a separate genus, Lama, from the alpaca. This genus is one of four genera, including Vicugna and the two species of true camels that comprise the suborder Tylopoda, which holds the unique species of even-toed ungulates with odd bumps on the feet.

In the nineteenth century, paleontologists Leidy, Cope, and Marsh interpreted the information gathered on extinct Tertiary wildlife in North America, which expanded the knowledge of the llama and its family. From this information, it was found that llamas were not always confined to South America for a natural range. Fossils of llama-like creatures were found in deposits from the Pleistocene era were found in South America and the Rocky Mountains. These specimens were significantly larger than the llamas of today. These North American llamas were classified under the genus Hemiauchenia, and it is thought that these llamas were common in areas now known as Texas, California, Utah, New Mexico, Missouri, and Florida 25,000 years ago.

The llama can grow to have an average height between 5.5 and 6 feet with a weight of up to 450 pounds. The teeth structure of the llama is similar to a camel’s, but it does differ slightly. Its skull also resembles that of a camel, but bares smaller nasal cavities. The ears are curved inwards and can be compared to bananas. The tail is short, and the toes are separated farther than the toes of the camel. There are four species in the Lama genus, all of which are part of a controversy among naturalists, because all four have similar habits and appearances. These species are the llama, the alpaca, the vicuña, and the guanaco.

The llama and the alpaca are the only species within the Lama genus that are completely domesticated, and as a result, they can be found in many different sizes and colors. The colorings of these two species include white, black, piebald, brown, and grey. The vicuña and the guanaco, and endangered species, can be found in the wild, and these species are typically light brown in color with white underbellies. These species can be found in different ranges and differ in appearance.

The llama is a sociable creature and is easily trained to a halter and lead once weaned. It is typically well behaved and curious, approaching most humans with no problems. However, if a llama is too socialized and bottle-fed when young, its behavior will become difficult once weaned. When this happens, the llama will treat humans with the same behaviors it uses for other llamas, which include kicking, spitting, and neck wrestling.

In herds, llamas typically spit when individuals lower in the hierarchy have stepped out of line. The hierarchy changes often, with males often causing small fights to gain dominance. These fights can be seen as violent, but usually only result in one llama losing its balance. Females spit in an attempt to control other individuals within a herd. Llamas also take care to protect the herd, braying if threatened to alert the herd of the danger. Llamas will communicate with a humming noise, and a “mwa” vocalization is used when an individual is angered or irritated. When irritated, the llama will lay its ears back, and the level of irritability level can be determined by the content of the spit.

Adult male llamas emit an “orgle” vocalization that is similar to a gargle when sexually aroused. This vocalization can be made during the process of mating. Female llamas do not go into estrous, or heat, but are able to produce an egg when mating. This is known as induced ovulation, and is rare among large mammals. Llamas will mate while lying down for up to 45 minutes, another unusual reproductive trait for a large mammal. The pregnancy period of a dam, or female breeding llama, can last up to 350 days, after which one cria, or baby, is born.

Instead of licking the cria, a mother llama will hum to her young, and nuzzle it. Llamas give birth in an all-female group, with other mothers surrounding the birthing mother and the cria in order to protect it from males and possible predators. Birth takes up to thirty minutes, and typically occurs in the warmer daylight hours between 8 AM and noon. The cria is able to walk and nurse within the first hour of its life. It is also fed salt as a dietary supplement.

The llama is able to breed in three different manners, depending upon a herder’s preference. Harem breeding consists of one male being left with a group of females year-round. Field breeding can be considered the easiest way of breeding, and occurs when one female with placed with one male and remains with him until she becomes pregnant. The most efficient method of breeding, known as hand breeding, consists of placing a male and female together in the same pen. Humans monitor the breeding, and both individuals will be separated and bred every other day in this way, until one or both llamas refuse to breed. After two or three weeks, if the female does not show signs of being pregnant, she is bred again using hand breeding.

In the 1980’s, humans began using llamas to guard livestock herds and sheep. This typically occurs in the western areas of the United States, where predators like coyotes are common. Usually only one castrated male, or gelding, is needed to protect a herd. This method of protecting a herd is accomplished when the gelding bonds with the livestock, but if more llamas are used, the chances of bonding between the livestock and the llama declines, so it is suggested that only one llama be used. Bonding between sheep or goats and a guard llama is more easily accomplished when the livestock are young, and the llama will become most protective these individuals. Using guard llamas is not costly, and requires little training, so many producers have found it to be an efficient means of livestock protection.

Llamas have been used in many cultures throughout their range. In pre-Incan cultures like the Moche culture, llama parts were placed in burial sites alongside important people, as provisions or gifts for the afterlife. In the Incan culture, llamas were used as pack animals, and often times Incan nobility were buried with llama figurines. One Incan deity, Urcuchillay, was portrayed as a multi colored llama. One scholar, Alex Chepstow-Lusty has even asserted that the llama was vital to the switch from hunting and gathering to farming, because llama dung was used as fertilizer. During the Spanish conquest, llamas were used to carry ore from mines. One estimate deduced by Gregory de Bolivar suggested that during his time, nearly 300,000 llamas were used to transport ore.  Because other pack animals like horses are now more common, llamas are not often used as heavy pack animals today.

Image Caption: A Llama lying down, also called “kushing”. Credit: Johann “nojhan” Dréo/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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