Guanaco Facts

Scientific Name: Lama guanicoe

Single guanaco
Guanaco in the park Torres del Paine, Chile.

Anton Petrus / Getty Images

The gaunaco (Lama guanicoe) is a South American camelid and the wild ancestor of the llama. The animal gets its name from the Quechua word huanaco.

Fast Facts: Guanaco

  • Scientific Name: Lama guanicoe
  • Common Name: Guanaco
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 3 feet 3 inches - 3 feet 11 inches at the shoulder
  • Weight: 200-310 pounds
  • Lifespan: 15-20 years
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: South America
  • Population: Over 1 million
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Description

Guanacos are smaller than llamas but larger than alpacas and their wild counterparts—vicuñas. Male guanacos are larger than females. The average adult stands 3 feet 3 inches to 3 feet 11 inches tall at the shoulder, and weighs between 200 and 310 pounds. While llamas and alpacas come in many colors and coat patterns, guanacos range from light to dark brown, with gray faces and white bellies. The coat is double-layered and thickened around the neck to protect against predator bites. Guanacos have split upper lips, two padded toes on each foot, and small, straight ears.

Guanacos are adapted to live at high elevations. They have large hearts for their body size. Their blood contains about four times more hemoglobin per unit volume than a human's.

Habitat and Distribution

Guanacos are native to South America. They are found in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. A small population lives in Paraguay and on the Falkland Islands. Guanacos can survive in extremely harsh environments. They inhabit mountains, steppes, scrublands, and deserts.

Map of guanaco range
Guanco range in South America. Udo Schröter / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

Diet

Guanacos are herbivores that eat grasses, shrubs, lichens, succulents, cacti, and flowers. They have three-chambered stomachs that help them extract nutrients. Guanacos can live without water for extended periods. Some live in the Atacama Desert, where it might not rain for 50 years. The guanacos get water from their diet of cacti and lichens, which absorb water from fog.

Pumas and foxes are the guanaco's primary predators, aside from humans.

Behavior

Some populations are sedentary, while others are migratory. Guanacos form three types of social groups. There are family groups, consisting of a single dominant male, females, and their young. When males reach one year of age, they are expelled from the family group and are solitary. Solitary males eventually band together to form small groups.

Guanacos communicate using a variety of sounds. They basically laugh in the face of danger, emitting a short laugh-like bleat to alert the herd. They can spit a distance up to six feet when threatened.

Because they live in areas that offer little cover from danger, guanacos have evolved to be excellent swimmers and runners. A guanaco can run up to 35 miles per hour.

Reproduction and Offspring

Mating occurs between November and February, which is summer in South America. Males fight to establish dominance, frequently biting each other's feet. Gestation lasts eleven and a half months, resulting in the birth of a single young, which is called a chulengo. Chulengos can walk within five minutes of birth. Females remain with their group, while males are expelled before the next breeding season. Only around 30% of chulengos reach maturity. The average lifespan of a guanaco is 15 to 20 years, but they may live up to 25 years.

Guanaco and chulengo
Guanaco and chulengo. Mint Images/ Art Wolfe / Getty Images

Conservation Status

The IUCN classifies the guanaco conservation status as "least concern." The population is estimated to range between 1.5 to 2.2 million animals and is increasing. However, this is still only 3-7% of the guanaco population before Europeans arrived in South America.

The population is severely fragmented. Guanacos are threatened by habitat fragmentation, competition from ranching, habitat destruction, human development, invasive species, diseases, climate change, and natural disasters, such as volcanoes and droughts.

Guanacos and Humans

While protected, guanacos are hunted for meat and fur. Some are killed by sheep herders, either because they are seen as competition or for fear of transmissible diseases. The fur is sometimes sold as a substitute for red fox fur. A few hundred guanacos are kept in zoos and private herds.

Sources

  • Baldi, R.B., Acebes, P., Cuéllar, E., Funes, M., Hoces, D., Puig, S. & Franklin, W.L. Lama guanicoe. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T11186A18540211. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T11186A18540211.en
  • Franklin, William L. and Melissa M. Grigione. "The enigma of guanacos in the Falkland Islands: the legacy of John Hamilton." Journal of Biogeography. 32 (4): 661–675. March 10, 2005. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2004.01220.x
  • Stahl, Peter W. "Animal Domestication in South America." In Silverman, Helaine; Isbell, William (eds.). Handbook of South American Archaeology. Springer. pp. 121–130. April 4, 2008. ISBN 9780387752280.
  • Wheeler, Dr Jane; Kadwell, Miranda; Fernandez, Matilde; Stanley, Helen F.; Baldi, Ricardo; Rosadio, Raul; Bruford, Michael W. "Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 268 (1485): 2575–2584. December 2001. doi:10.1098/rspb.2001.1774