Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 5.1 to 6.6 feet (153 to 200 centimeters)
Shoulder height: 3.6 to 3.8 feet (110 to 115 centimeters)
Weight: 176 to 265 pounds (80 to 120 kilograms)
Lifespan: 15 to 20 years
Gestation: 11.5 months
Number of young at birth: 1
Weight at birth: 15 to 33 pounds (7 to 15 kilograms)
Age of maturity: females, 2 years; males, 1 year
Conservation status: Lower risk
• Llamas are descendants of wild guanacos that were domesticated 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Andean natives raised them for wool, meat, and skin and also used them as pack animals.
• The extinct large-headed llama Hemiauchenia macrocephala was 2 feet (0.6 meters) taller than its descendant, the guanaco.
• Camels, guanacos, llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas are all members of the camel family.
A cleft, or split, upper lip helps the guanaco gather food.
Guanacos are graceful animals related to camels. Pronounced "gwa NAH ko," they are found throughout South America, living in dry, open country in the mountains or on the plains. Guanacos have a calm attitude, so people started to domesticate them for use as pack animals. The result is the llama of today, which is the domesticated version of the guanaco—llamas don’t exist in the wild. Another branch of the family tree is the alpaca, which is also a type of domesticated guanaco raised for its soft wool.
Funny name, familiar face
Everyone knows what a llama looks like, but what’s a guanaco? Standing just under 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall at the shoulder, guanacos have slender bodies, long legs, and long necks. They are shorter and smaller than their camel relatives. Although they seem delicate, guanacos can weigh up to 265 pounds (120 kilograms). Male guanacos are larger than the females. All guanacos have a thick, wooly coat that can be light brown, brownish yellow, or a rusty red. Their belly, rump, and the backs of the legs are usually white; the head, ears, and nape of the neck are gray. These colors help the guanaco blend in with its grassland and desert habitats.
Guanacos have a double coat, with coarse guard hairs covergin a fine, soft coat.
Where’s the hump?
Guanacos have large eyes with very thick lashes to protect them from dust and dirt kicked up by heavy winds. Their ears are large and pointed. Even though they are related to camels, they do not have humps on their back. What they do share in common with camels are their feet: both animals have two padded toes that help with footing on rocky trails or gravel slopes. Their feet are best described as “squishy.”
More plants, please
Guanacos are the largest herbivores in South America's dry areas. A guanaco’s upper lip is split in two and can be used like fingers to help draw in food. They are grazers and browsers and can eat some pretty tough, low-quality food. Not to worry, though—guanacos have a specialized digestive system to handle it. Their stomach has three chambers and they are ruminants, like cows. This allows them to get the most nutrients from the plants they eat. They don’t need to drink any water and often don't drink during the day, getting all the moisture they need from the food they eat.
Going the distance
Guanacos have many ways of getting around. In the open places where they live there is no place to hide, but guanacos are excellent runners, reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour), just like horses. Baby guanacos, called chulengos, are able to run soon after birth. Guanacos are also strong swimmers and are comfortable standing or lying in mountain streams. Whether walking, running, or swimming, guanacos are very athletic.
Guanaco ears are very expressive: ears up means things are fine; ears flat signals aggression.
Lots to say
All animals have many ways of communicating, although some ways are more pleasant than others. Guanacos start out using the standard method of ears, body, and tail positions. Ears up is the relaxed position, ears forward means the guanaco is alarmed, and ears laid flat signals aggression. Tail down is normal, straight out is a sign of an alert guanaco, and straight up is an aggressive signal. A nose-to-nose encounter means a greeting, while slouching down indicates submission.
Guanacos also communicate through vocalizations. Their sounds range from high-pitched trills to snorting and shrieking: they need to alert the herd to any possible danger approaching. Guanacos run when threatened and their best chance of escaping a predator, such as a mountain lion or fox, is to do it all together. If they run in a group, the predator is more likely to be confused and unable to focus on any one individual. Guanacos at the San Diego Zoo sound an alert call when animal trainers walk the Zoo's wolf, Kenai, by their enclosure. Even though Kenai is on a leash, he’s still a wolf, after all!
I prefer a handshake
Guanacos have other communication methods that some people might find gross. They can spit up to a distance of 6 feet (1.8 meters) and have great aim. What are they spitting? Their stomach contents—food that has been stewing in digestive juices. Food is not just for eating, as far as guanacos are concerned!
Guanacos also use their dung as a form of communication: dung piles mark territory boundaries for them. The next time you meet a guanaco, you better hope it only has nice things to say to you!
A baby guanaco nurses for about a year.
Guanacos live in three types of groups: family groups, including one adult male, several adult females, and youngsters under one year of age; male, or bachelor, bands; and solitary males. The all-boy bands are made up of young males that were kicked out of the herd by the dominant male when they reached sexual maturity at about one year old. The young males stick together for protection, and they also practice fighting skills through play fights. The solitary males tend to be mature males looking for females or a herd to take over so they can start their own families. A male often picks a territory that has high-quality vegetation to help him attract the females.
Females wait to become pregnant until environmental conditions seem right. They give birth every other year to a single calf during the summer months, which are December to February in South America. Mountain lions are the guanaco's main predator but can only carry off one or two young. For this reason, many females give birth at about the same time so the babies have a greater chance of survival. Newborns can stand five minutes after birth and begin to follow their mother immediately. It is a rough life for a baby guanaco, though. Predators, lack of food, bad weather, and accidents can mean death to the little ones—only 30 percent of guanaco babies born in the wild live long enough to become adults.
Wild guanacos in Chile spend their days eating and resting.
Future of the beast
There used to be about 50 million guanacos in the world. Today there are less than 600,000, with about 90 percent living in Argentina. Habitat destruction plays a major role in their disappearance in the wild. Guanacos are used for their wool, meat, and skin, yet they are considered pests in parts of South America because they graze in certain regions where farmers keep their sheep.
The San Diego Zoo proudly received its first breeding pair of guanacos in 1968 and has been working hard for their preservation ever since.
The llama (at right) is the domestic counterpart of the guanaco.