New World Camels
New World camels are native to the Andes Mountains on the western side of South America. The wild New World camels are the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) and the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) while the llama and alpaca are domestic animals.
Wild South American camels live primarily at high altitudes in both open grasslands and forests. Their family groups may include a male and half a dozen or so females, each with a single young. Young males are chased from the group when they are between a year and a year and a half old, then they join a bachelor herd until they can later form their own family groups. Young females join a new group and mate, producing young after a gestation period of about 11 to 12 months.
Vicuñas are extremely rare in the wild, and are small animals, often standing no more than 3 ft (90 cm) at the shoulder and weighing no more than about 110 lb (50 kg). Vicuñas, are alone among the camels to have bottom incisor teeth that keep growing and enamel only on the outer surface. This characteristic has led taxonomists to assign them to a separate genus. Vicuñas are fast runners that can readily cover the dry, open grasslands where they live at altitudes between 11,500 and 18,700 ft (3,500-5,700 m). Male vicuñas defend both a grazing territory and a sleeping territory.
Vicuña fur can be woven into one of the softest textiles known and was for many centuries worn only by the Inca kings. After the Incan empire fell, Vicuñas were no longer protected, and were hunted for their meat and skins until they were close to extinction, with fewer than 10,000 animals left in 1967. Vicuñas are now protected in several Andean national parks, and their numbers are climbing once again.
The South American larger guanaco lives primarily in dry open country, from the coastal plains to the high mountains. Guanaco hair is cinnamon colored on their backs and white on their under parts. Unlike the smaller vicuñas, they have dark faces. Guanacos stand about 6 ft (less than 2 m) tall, and are the tallest South American camels, but are very light compared to camels, weighing only about 250 lb (113 kg). Most guanacos now live in Patagonia, a temperate large grassland in southern Argentina and Chile, and are found from sea level to about 14,000 ft (4,200 m). Male guanacos will mark their territories with piles of dung. Female guanacos give birth every two years with their newborn being called a chulengo, which can run within minutes of being born. Young guanacos often make a playful prance in which they lift all four feet off the ground at once, and guanacos also like playing in the running water of streams.
Starting about 4,000 years ago, natives of the Andes Mountains bred the guanaco to develop two other domesticated camels, the sure-footed llama (Lama glama), bred for its strength, endurance, and its ability to carry great loads over steep mountains, and the long-haired alpaca (Lama pacos).
Llamas stand only about 4 ft (1.2 m) at the shoulder. Usually only male llamas are used for the long pack trains, while the females are kept for breeding. An average male llama weighs about 200 lb (90 kg) but can carry a load weighing two-thirds that amount on its back, for about 15-20 mi (24-32 km) a day across mountain terrain. Llamas were used by the Incas to transport silver from their mountain mines.
The alpaca, the other domesticated breed, has long hair valued for warm blankets and clothing because it is soft, lightweight, and waterproof. Some breeds of alpaca have hair that almost reaches the ground before it is sheared. Llama hair is not used for weaving because it is too coarse. Llamas and alpacas are often crossed to get an animal that produces hair that is both sturdier and softer than either of the parents' hair.
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Jean F. Blashfield