What's the Difference Between a Llama and an Alpaca?

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
an alpaca and a llama
A llama (right) and an alpaca look very similar, but there are some major differences between llamas and alpacas. Helen Iv/Shutterstock

Llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Lama pacos) are like those two people you see around town all the time who look just alike. As with any doppelgangers, their friends know the difference between them — their mothers probably couldn't even see the resemblance. But to the average Joe, both of these pack animals kind of resemble an ostrich mixed with a standard poodle and a camel, which is a really specific look. So, llama vs. alpaca — what's the difference between the two animals?

To be fair, llamas and alpacas, both herd animals, are so closely related they can interbreed and create fertile offspring, so their strong resemblance is no surprise.


Both llamas and alpacas are in the family Camelidae, a group of ruminant ungulates with long necks and legs — the family also includes camels, obviously. But while camels and dromedaries evolved in deserts in Africa and Asia, llamas and alpacas, along with their close wild relatives the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) and the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), are products of the high, rugged Andes Mountains of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Llamas and Alpacas Are Ancient Livestock

The camelids of South America have been an important source of food and warmth for humans for thousands of years — at least since the early Holocene. Initially, humans hunted the petite vicuña and larger guanaco, but at least 6,000 years ago they began to domesticate them. In time they became alpacas and llamas, respectively.

Both alpacas and llamas were domesticated around the same time, but they served different purposes for the Andean people. Raising alpacas was more difficult, as their habitat preferences were more specific — they preferred elevations above 13,000 feet (3,962 meters), and caring for a herd was a full-time job. Llamas, on the other hand, didn't seem to mind whether they lived at sea level or high in the mountains, and raising these large, sturdy animals was compatible with farming crops like potatoes and grains.


Because of their fine, thick wool, alpacas were engineered by the Inca as a source of fiber for royal clothing, while llamas and their dung were likely the reason for the success of the Inca civilization in general. Around 2,700 years ago, the people of the high Andes were beginning to leave behind their old hunting and gathering ways to dabble in agriculture. Both llamas and alpacas were useful as herding animals, and their poop, rich in nutrients needed to grow crops like corn, became a means of turning the thin Andean soil into fertile loam.

A mother alpaca and her baby stick close together in the Lake District National Park in Cumbria, England.
Tim Graham/Getty Images

Alpacas and llamas became integral to Inca society. Both are pack animals, and camelid caravans are what made trade along the network of roads built throughout the Inca empire possible. Both llamas and alpacas were also an important part of religious life — they have even been found mummified and buried beneath houses.Llamas and alpacas were the basis of a booming herding economy until the two species were nearly extirpated by the Spanish during their conquest of the area in the 16th century. The Spanish relied heavily on camelids formeat and transportation, but the native livestock were no match for the diseases brought over with the European's sheep and cattle. It took nearly 300 years after the Spanish invasion for alpaca and llama populations to rebound.


Differences Between a Llama and an Alpaca

Although they're close relatives to begin with and llamas are often interbred with alpacas these days in order to increase the weight of their wool, there are some distinct physiological and temperamental differences between llamas and alpacas. An average alpaca is smaller than a llama, and alpaca ears are smaller and pointier. Alpacas tend to have shorter snouts, and alpaca wool is finer and thicker than llama wool. The average llama tends to be about twice the weight of an alpaca, has a long snout, tall, banana-shaped ears and a curly coat that looks and feels more like hair than the alpaca's coat.

Llama fiber is often found in things like rugs, ropes and cushion fillings because of its course texture. Baby llama fiber is even finer and softer, coming close to alpaca fiber in texture. Alpaca fiber, and baby alpaca fiber in particular, is used in clothing because it is softer, warmer, more lightweight and is hypoallergenic.


Personality-wise, the two are different. Both are generally docile, but compared to the average alpaca, llamas tend to be pretty sassy. They are more independent, vocal and assertive, and because of this, llamas are sometimes used as guard animals to keep other livestock from predators. They're curious and don't mind people or being kept with other animals, although they tend to be more territorial than alpacas — llamas tend to occasionally fight each other for dominance. It's this feisty personality that makes llamas great guard animals for livestock like sheep, and even for alpacas.

alpaca vs. llama
Llamas have tall, banana-shaped ears, whereas an alpaca's ears are smaller and more pointed.
Min C. Chiu/Shutterstock

Alpacas, on the other hand, are shy and reserved around people, but very social within the alpaca herd, and like to spend their time within family units. Sisters, mothers and baby alpacas will often all hang out together within the herd.

"We generally tell people you should never have fewer than three alpacas at a time because they have a hierarchical structure in their herds," says Janis Piper, an alpaca herder at the Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm in Unity, Maine. "They're matriarchal, so even if you have a gelded male in with the females, the female would be boss. Within a herd of males, there will always be a leader of that group as well. One alpaca would get sick and die if it was alone. If you have two, you always have one that's in charge and one that gets bossed around. With three, there will be a leader, but the other two know more what their role is — a herd with three or more is just happier and more settled."

Neither animal is particularly huggable, but overall llamas and alpacas are not dangerous.

"They can spit digestive juices at you, but that's about all they can do," says Piper. "It's gross, but it's their only predator protection, and they usually won't even do that."

Northern Solstice Alpaca Farm