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How Do Llamas Adapt To Their Environment?

Llamas live in the Andes, at elevations from 7,550 to 13,120 ft (2,300–4,000 m). 

At such heights it’s dry, windy, and cold – temperatures can drop below freezing 32 degrees F (0 °C).

There’s low humidity, increased UV radiation, decreased air pressure, you name it.

Breathing becomes hard as there’s not enough oxygen available. In humans, this can cause hypoxia – a situation where there’s not enough oxygen in the tissues to sustain bodily functions.

And yet, for thousands of years, llamas have thrived in such conditions.

Llama’s adaptations to their environment include a high concentration of hemoglobin in its blood to survive high altitudes with little air, special feet structure to walk easily in mountain terrain, thick fur as protection from the cold, special stomach structure to digest nutrient-poor foods.

In this article, we will explain all of these llama adaptations to their environment.

how do llamas adapt to their environment

Llamas Have Oval Blood Cells And A High Concentration Of Hemoglobin In The Blood

Llamas have small, oval-shaped red blood cells which help them adapt to high altitudes and cope with low oxygen levels. These blood cells have high hemoglobin content – hemoglobin is a protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the organs and tissues.

And because of their unique shape, these blood cells provide a large surface to which the oxygen can stick. 

If llamas have low hemoglobin levels,  that would lead to anemia and problems like fatigue and trouble breathing.

Lamas also have high capillary density, which means that blood is delivered quickly and efficiently to muscle tissue.

Llamas Have Thick Fur To Protect Them From The Cold, Insects, Ultraviolet Radiation

llamas thick fur

Lama wool is between 20 and 40 microns in diameter and hollow in the middle. This makes it significantly warmer than other animals’ fur and helps llama stay cozy when the temperature is low. A thick coat also prevents the dangerous UV rays from reaching the llama’s skin and damaging it.

The wool is extremely fine, soft, and silky. That’s why people in the Andes have been using it for centuries to make clothes, blankets, ropes, nets, etc.

To insulate themselves even better from the cold and keep their coat clean, llamas will roll in the dirt. 

This goofy behavior powders their wool, creates the effect of an air mattress, insulates the fiber, and keeps their coat warm, healthy, and fluffy.

The long coat also keeps them safe from pesky bugs and insects as they can’t reach their skin. Llamas will also use their long ears to swat them away. 

Occasionally, if surprised by the predator, llama’s thick wool might prevent serious injuries if the animal manages to escape.

Unique Foot Structure Helps Them Walk On Various Terrains

llama foot, toes and nails

Unlike other animals, llamas have long legs and soft padded feet at their bottoms. They do not have hooves; instead, each foot has two toes and thick nails. The nails protect the feet, and the padded feet allow them to walk more easily on the rocky terrain.

Llama’s legs are long, thin, and muscular. If needed, llamas might use them as weapons against predators. 

The cushions at the bottom of the llama’s feet reduce the stress on the joints and body from walking. They have the same role as running shoes in humans.

Long Legs And Necks Help Reach Tall Vegetation

Llamas are both browsers and grazers – they feed on low and high vegetation. Having flexible lips together with long necks allows them to reach heights up to 6 feet in the air (1.8 m).

Their lips are prehensile – this means that llamas can use them to grab, rotate, and manipulate different foods and items.

After extending their necks, grabbing the food with their lips, they will chew in a rotating manner before the food gets to the next part of their digestive system. 

To Save Energy While Walking, Llamas Move Their Legs Ipsilaterally 

how llamas walk

When they walk, llamas move ipsilateral pairs of legs together. This means that the legs of the same side of the body move forward at the same time, followed by the legs of the other side.

This useful leg adaptation allows llamas to spend less energy on walking, prevent legs from clattering into one another, and give them a longer stride.

Llamas Are Also Fast Runners

A llama has a top speed of around 40 mph (65 km/h).  They are fast runners that rely on speed to get away from danger.

Occasionally, a llama will not try to fight with its predator, especially if it’s a larger one. Instead, they might try to flee.

Compared to their natural predator, the coyote, llamas are a bit slower. Coyotes run up to 43 mph (69 km/h). This still gives llamas a chance to outrun them, especially if they notice them early.

Puma, another llama enemy, is a lot faster, up to 50 mph (80 km/h). Spotting them early to try to outrun them is key.

Keen Eyesight And Excellent Hearing Allow Them To Spot Predators

llamas excellent hearing and eyesight

Llamas can hear and see well. These two developed senses allow them to spot a predator coming near and ambushing them.

These two features also come in handy for guardian llamas – llamas that have a role in protecting livestock, like sheep or goats. 

Llamas will spot the intruder early, sound an alarm cry to warn the owners and the animals, lead the herd to safety and then stand in front of the predator to protect them. 

They might even charge at them to try to bite, kick, or spit at them.

To Adapt To Temperature Changes, Llamas Will Vary Their Body Temperature

To save water and energy and survive challenging environmental conditions, llamas will fluctuate their daily body temperatures. During the hotter parts of the day, they will increase their body temperature; during the night, when it’s colder, they will drop their body temperature.

Llamas use this adaptive mechanism to save energy by reducing their metabolic rate. They might fluctuate their body temperature between 35.2 and 37.8 °F (1.8-3.2 °C). To save even more energy, llamas will move less.

Llamas vary their body temperature more during the summer and spring when the outside temperature would change more. During winter and autumn, these fluctuations are lower.

Some smaller animals, usually those under 22 pounds (10 kg), will get into torpor or hibernation to reduce their energy expenditure and body temperature when there’s no food to be found.

Further reading: Do llamas need to hibernate?

Llamas Have Special Stomach Structure To Digest Rough Foods

llama three chambered stomach

Llamas have stomachs with three chambers. Such stomach structure in llamas allows them to digest more efficiently available food – plants many animals would refuse to eat. 

As a comparison, sheep or goats have four chambers in their stomachs.

The first chamber makes up 80% of the total stomach size and is a place where the food gets fermented and cellulose converted into digestible nutrients.

In the second chamber, some nutrients get absorbed while the food gets broken down in the third. Vitamins, minerals, and water further get absorbed in the small intestine, caecum, and colon.

Some scientists claim that llamas digest food about 25% more efficiently than some animals (goats, for example).

Llamas Have High Lung Capacity

A llama has an increased lung capacity – this means that it can breathe in more air. This saves more energy and requires llama to breathe less often. 

The oxygen at altitudes llamas live at can drop to only 40%. To be able to survive and breathe properly at such heights, llamas developed an effective respiratory system.

This also means that a llama will not need to get into anaerobic respiration and spend myoglobin stores of oxygen found in muscles.

Final Thoughts

This concludes our article going over “how do llamas adapt to their environment”.

Llama environment adaptations:

  1. Llamas have oval blood cells and a high concentration of hemoglobin in the blood
  2. Llamas have thick fur to protect them from the cold, insects, ultraviolet radiation
  3. Unique foot structure helps walk on various terrains
  4. Long legs and necks help reach tall vegetation
  5. To save energy while walking, llamas move their legs ipsilaterally
  6. Llamas are fast runners
  7. Keen eyesight and excellent hearing allow them to spot predators
  8. To adapt to temperature changes, llamas will vary their body temperature
  9. Llamas have special stomach structure to digest rough foods
  10. Llamas have high lung capacity


[1] Garry, Franklyn. “Clinical pathology of llamas.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice 5.1 (1989): 55-70.

[2] Riek, Alexander, et al. “Seasonal changes in energy expenditure, body temperature and activity patterns in llamas (Lama glama).” Scientific reports 7.1 (2017): 1-12.

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