The llama is a native South American version of the camel, but despite the fact that South America has several deserts, the domesticated llama lives in none of them, or in any desert anywhere. Instead, his hereditary biome is upland mountain plateaus. His wild relatives, the guanaco and vicuña are far more desert creatures than he.
A Desert and Its Animals
A desert can be hot or cold, but it gets less than 10 inches of rainfall a year. The lack of water makes it hard for it to support large animals. Desert mammals, in particular, tend to be small; the largest mammals in most deserts are no bigger than a coyote or a bobcat, and are much more likely to be those that can burrow. This makes llamas, at up to 6 feet tall at the head, 4 feet at the withers and around 400 pounds, very big for a desert animal. While Chile's Atacama Desert is part of the altiplano or high uplands, llamas can't live in the Atacama itself because the driest place on earth doesn't have enough water on a year-round basis to support an animal of its size. Wild guanacos and vicuñas live close to the Atacama, and can venture into it because vicuñas are smaller than llamas and need less to drink, while guanacos can drink the salty standing water there.
The camelids of the Pleistocene who roamed southwards from the plains of North America found a home in the western foothills of the Andes Mountains, in an area called the puna. This ecosystem occurs at about 4,000 feet above sea level, and includes grassy mountain meadows with brush and small trees. The northern parts are temperate, and this is the modern llama's stronghold, where he survived when the Spanish invaders tried to replace him with sheep. The imported sheep didn't prosper, but the llama held on, and has come back to prominence and appreciation.
The llama is prepared physically for a high-altitude existence, inside and out. His thick, shaggy body coat protects him from rain, snow and cold, and his short-haired legs and belly allow him to disperse heat when he needs to; when he lies down, or ''cushes," he tucks his legs completely under him to protect these areas. His blood is adapted to the lower-oxygen atmosphere found in the mountains, with a high hemoglobin content and oval, rather than round, red corpuscles. His two-toed feet have nails rather than hooves and are soft on the bottom, with leathery pads; these adaptations give him superior traction on almost any surface, from sand to stones to snow. All these adaptations show that the llama is much better suited to the mountains than the desert.
The llama is an excellent pack animal, able to carry about one-fourth of his own body weight, and this has made him a popular partner for wilderness trekking in the mountains and hills of the U.S. and Canada, and in Europe. His padded feet are easy on the environment, he can eat grain and hay on the trail without grazing or browsing, and his droppings are small and easily biodegradable.
He's a gentle and affectionate companion animal. He's intelligent and easily trained, and is popular with schools and nursing homes as a visitor.
He's an asset to the farmer and rancher as a protector of smaller livestock, and actually will defend a flock of sheep or goats from coyotes and dogs by charging and kicking at them.
- Peru for Less: Latin America Travel Guide: Top 3 South American Deserts
- Extreme Science: Driest Place: Atacama Desert, Chile
- National Geographic: The Driest Place on Earth
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- Blue Planet Biomes: Desert
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- FAQ.com: FAQ About Llamas and Alpacas
- The Journal of Experimental Biology 204, 3151–3160 (2001): Genetic Approaches to Understanding Human Adaptation to Altitude: J. L. Rupert and P. W. Hochachka
- International Union for Conservation of Nature: South American Puna: Conservation in the Heights
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- National Geographic News: Guard Llamas Keep Sheep Safe from Coyotes
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