What is the Difference Between Llamas and Alpacas?

The Camelidae family consists of the camels (obviously), the llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos.

The two (or three) camel species are difficult to tell apart, but the others are differentiated from them by being a lot smaller and generally less grumpy.

Llamas and alpacas are two domesticated species that look frustratingly similar at times, and they are closely related, but they come from different stock, and have distinct differences in appearance and DNA if you can get close enough to look.

They also have a different temperament and social behaviours, but there’s a lot of overlap to these, too. The best place to start when trying to tell them apart (though perhaps not the easiest), is to go back in time…

What is the Difference Between Llamas and Alpacas?

1. They’re almost the same thing

A long, long time ago, camelids covered the Americas. Then humans arrived and likely killed most of them, enslaving much of what remained as domestic servants to the conquering species.

Llamas and alpacas were camelids from South America. For generations, they’ve both been bred as woolly, domesticated herd animals and they are both quite lanky and strange-looking, as is the standard for camelids.

They are so closely related that they can breed together and even create fertile offspring, but despite this, they are currently ranked as different species. Llamas (Lama glama) differ from the alpaca (Lama pacos) in their ancestry.

At the genetic level, the two can be told apart quite clearly. Alpacas are domesticated vicuñas and llamas are domesticated guanacos, which diverged from one another around 2 million years ago and remain in the ecosystem today as the animals who were too wiley or stubborn to be domesticated.

And you can still see a bit of a family resemblance from looking at them. But if you don’t have access to a PCR machine, you’re going to have to find a simpler way to tell them apart.

2. Llamas are much bigger

Llamas descend from a much larger ancestral species in the guanaco (note: these lines have been blurred a little by more recent hybridisation, but it still applies), and so retains the majesty of its wild cousin.

Likewise, the alpaca derives from the cute and petite vicuña, whose stature is much less intimidating and much more like a woolly little thumb (more on that later).

The difference in size between the two is significant: llamas are about twice as big, at 200kg and almost two metres tall; alpacas are just under a metre tall and weigh around 90kg when fully grown.

Of course, this one goes out the window when you’re looking at juveniles, so you can try shouting “boo” at them and see which one attacks you.


3. Alpacas are cowards

People love comparing llamas and alpacas by their boldness or lack thereof. Llamas are said to be brave and tough, but then the comparison breaks down when the flipside of those attributes is erroneously described as “gentle”.

The opposite of brave isn’t ‘gentle’, it’s cowardly. Alpacas are cowardly animals and it’s time someone called them out on it.

They’re gentle, too, of course. But then, so are llamas. The difference is the llama chooses to be gentle, the alpaca doesn’t have the balls to be anything else.

Llamas are great guard animals because they don’t take any nonsense. Alpacas take lots of nonsense and so need to be protected. Often by a llama.

In their defence, they’re half the size and very, very soft.

4. Alpacas are a more sociable

A lot of the appeal of the llama comes from its power and independence. They’re strong in body and mind, so can carry your stuff up a mountain and loyally protect you from tourists and pumas. But this comes at a bit of a cost. The force of nature that is a llama means they’re not as eager to please, and a bit less social than the timid alpaca.

Alpacas are very social. They love to be around one another and make friends easily. But this isn’t a slight on the llama; they have besties too. 1

5. Llamas have long faces

If you don’t have access to their friends list, you are going to have to go back to basics. Llamas have faces that look much more camel-like: long, with a sort of goofy overbite and slender nasal bones.

Alpacas, well, they look different.

6. Alpacas look like a thumb

If you’ve ever seen one of those people whose neck is as wide as their head, that’s the look alpacas are going for. 

Their rounder faces contrast less against the fluffy, cylindrical neck and give them the appearance of having been squeezed through a tube.

John Cena. They look like John Cena. But with wool instead of muscles.

And this effect is amplified by their lack of ears. 2


7. Llamas have longer ears

At the top of their heads, alpacas have a ball of fluff framed by two pointy little ears that look perky and vigilant.

Llama ears are more relaxed and longer, giving them the appearance of a large hare or kangaroo. But don’t tell them that, or you might get sprayed.

8. Alpacas will spit less (at people)

The assertiveness of a llama means that they don’t have so much trouble telling you when you’re upsetting them.

Both llamas and alpacas bring up green, acidic stomach contents into their mouths and project it rapidly towards a target they don’t like, and in alpacas this is usually reserved by the female for resisting a pestering male, but they will rarely use this against people if they feel the need to.

Llamas are less hesitant, and far more likely to spit, and can likely get a bigger mouthful to hurl, too. You can, if you watch enough YouTube compilations, get a feel for the early warning signs and ways to avoid being in the firing line.

If ears go back and chin comes forward, and the camelid begins moving its mouth like it’s forming a projectile, it’s time to duck.

But to avoid it getting to this point, don’t stick cameras or your face into those of the animal, they aren’t smiling and they don’t want to kiss you.

9. Alpacas have softer wool

If you’re tired of all these disrespectful animals hurling their gut contents onto your glasses, you might have killed and skinned one by now*. Time to look at the wool.

Alpaca wool is some of the finest you can get. It is a fine fibre and makes luxuriously soft ponchos scarves and other things you should buy from the gift shop to bring back after you hike Machu Pichu.

But llama wool will last longer; it’s denser, thicker and more durable. Llama wool is for when you’re trekking barefoot across Mongolia because Machu Pichu was too easy and full of tourists. It is coarse and sturdy and, of course, warm.

*Note: you do not have to kill and skin the animal to get the wool – they can be safely shorn and forgiven. 3

Final Thoughts

So there you have it – llama versus alpaca!

Llamas and alpacas are remarkably similar, both in looks and in biology. The best way to tell them apart is their size, as llamas are roughly twice the mass of alpacas, but the next best thing is to look at their faces.

The cute and cowardly alpaca has a short face, with a neck the same width as its head. The llama is more camel-like in appearance, with a longer, boxier face.

If you need to get a closer look, you might be able to tell by how much of its stomach contents it’s hurled at you in self-defence. The llama’s larger mouth can form a much fleshier, grassier gob.

Finally, if they’ll let you get close enough to make a poncho out of them, the llama is the one that you can wear every day. The alpaca is for those Instagram treks that are really just pulling over on the side of the road to take a selfie next to some trees.

Fact Sources & References

  1. https://www.lilymoorefarm.com/alpacas-have-best-friends/
  2. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/he-looks-terrified-xd–100627372910552251/
  3. https://www.alpacacollections.com/blog/exploring-luxurious-natural-fibers-alpaca-llama/