Alpacas vs. Llamas: What’s the Difference?

They’re both in the camel family and live in South America, but alpacas and llamas aren’t the same species.
Alpaca on the left, llama on the right.
Alpaca on the left, llama on the right. / Mike Hill/Stone/Getty Images (alpaca); Arctic-Images/Stone/Getty Images (llama); Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (spanider)

Llamas and alpacas are thoroughly beloved in contemporary pop culture (just Google “llama alpaca gifts”). Though they have multiple similarities in real life, they are unique animals with interesting histories. Here’s how to tell them apart.

Llamas vs. Alpacas: A Cheat Sheet




Face Shape

Descended From


About 3 feet at the shoulder

100-175 pounds


Shorter snout and rounder head



3-4 feet at the shoulder

280-450 pounds


Longer snout and head shape


Size and Appearance

Llamas (Lama glama) are quite a lot bigger than alpacas (Vicugna pacos). An adult llama can weigh as much as 450 pounds, while an adult alpaca usually weighs up to 175 pounds—less than half of the bigger animal’s maximum heft. Llamas also have longer faces and long, curving ears that go straight up. Alpacas’ muzzles are shorter, and they have small, v-shaped ears, a more rounded-looking head, and a shorter face, like a llama that walked into a door.

A herd of alpacas.
A herd of alpacas. / Don Mason/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There are two types of modern alpaca: huacayas, which have a fluffy, wooly look you just want to lie down on, and suris, whose finer fleece flows straight down like a full-bodied version of horse’s mane.


Llamas and alpacas get as big as they do by eating their veggies. Both animals are grazers, with alpacas eating soft grasses; llamas nosh on grasses and shrubs. Like cows, both ruminate partially digested plant matter (a.k.a. chew their cud), but whereas cows have four stomachs like all true ruminants, llamas and alpacas have only three and are considered modified ruminants or pseudoruminants [PDF].


Another way they’re alike: There are no wild llamas or wild alpacas. 

Llamas in South America.
Llamas in South America. / Robert Borner/500px/Getty Images

Both are camelids whose ancestors go back about 40 million years in North America [PDF]. These populations began migrating south about 3 million years ago, and by the end of the most recent ice age, about 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, there were no more camelids in North America.

The animals that made it to South America evolved into guanacos and vicuñas. Guanacos (Lama guanicoe) are placid animals that look like clean-cut llamas and live in the Andes from Peru to Tierra del Fuego, while vicuñas (Vicugno vicugno) resemble deer, with gentle faces and long limbs, and are native to Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Peru. Wild guanacos and vicuñas still roam high-altitude deserts and grasslands today.

Llamas and alpacas are actually domesticated guanacos and vicuñas, respectively. Though the means and timeline of their domestication is hotly debated, both animals begin showing up in the fossil record about 7000 years ago, suggesting that Andean peoples used them as pack animals and for other purposes around that time.

Cultural History

Alpaca fleece was so prized by the Inca of Peru that only royalty wore it, and to this day a warm, soft alpaca fleece sweater or blanket is a luxurious item.

Quechua woman in colorful pink and red shawl spins yarn from alpaca fleece.
A Quechua woman in Peru spins yarn from bundles of alpaca fleece. / Tuul & Bruno Morandi/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Llamas were integral to Incan culture and daily life. They provided food and fibers for clothing, and could carry up to 130 pounds along steep and rocky mountain passes. Their size and strength made them valuable as guardians of other animals. Even their dung made fabulous fertilizer.

Llamas also had one unenviable role in Inca society—as animal sacrifices. In 2020, Science reported that the mummified remains of a llama, decked out in colorful tassels alongside some decorated guinea pigs, was found in Peru’s Acari Valley. Llamas were so prized by the Inca they were second only to humans in terms of sacrificial value.

Do Alpacas Spit?

Knowing this history, you might think, “no wonder llamas have a reputation for spitting”—and alpacas have been known to do it, too. But this occasional behavior is largely reserved for their fellow llamas and alpacas. Even then, it takes provocation, and they do give the offender notice. 

A close up of a herd of alpacas
Watch out for spitting alpacas. / wellsie82/Moment/Getty Images

According to BBC Wildlife, they will lob their stomach contents—“a foul-smelling mixture of gastric juice and undigested plant material”—at another llama or alpaca after making specific gestures, including flattened ears and a puff from its nostril, then a forward lean, chin outward. Infractions that earn this sliming include stealing another’s food, males fighting over females, or males giving females unwanted attention.

Therapy Llamas and Dancing Alpacas

In the modern world, both animals have found new types of employment. In the Canadian province of Manitoba, for example, alpaca dance classes have one-upped goat yoga in the category of ungulate-based group exercise.

They’ve also stuck a hoof into the behavioral sciences. Therapy llamas and supportive alpaca programs exist in the U.S. and the UK, based on the theories that petting and talking to the gentle animals can reduce anxiety and stress. Indeed, who could look into in those big brown eyes and not believe that every little thing was gonna be alright?

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