How Many Stomachs Do Llamas Have? (Anatomy And Digestion)

Llamas and other South American camelids have a very special digestive system. Some animal scientists even claim that llamas digest food 25% more efficiently than some animals.

The llama’s stomach is a multi-chambered structure that stores, breaks down, and digests food. Llamas are foregut fermenters. This means that their large and complex stomachs with rumen digest food.

In this article, we will explain:

  • How many stomachs do llamas have
  • Llama stomach anatomy 
  • How a llama’s stomach help with digestion
how many stomachs does a llama have

How Many Stomachs Do Llamas Have?

Just like other camelids, llamas have a three-chambered stomach. Their stomach consists of 3 compartments: the rumen, reticulum, and abomasum. Such stomach physiology allows them to extract and absorb as many nutrients as possible from the food they eat.

When it comes to stomach microbiology in llamas, the situation is highly complex. There are hundreds of species of bacteria and protozoa that participate in the digestion process. Some stomach bacteria digest cellulose, starches, sugars, acids, and proteins, others produce methane or ammonia, while some synthesize vitamins. 

Llamas are both browsers and grazers; they will eat different plants, herbs, lichen, tree bark, as well as grass.  What is interesting is that the llama does not use its tongue to grab or manipulate the food.

Because of their special stomach structure, llamas are a lot more efficient at digesting warm-season grass hay compared to other ruminants like goats.

Compared to goats, llamas digest C4 grass hays more efficiently, possibly due to the llamas’ longer matter retention times (71 h vs 54 h). Compared to horses and rabbits, llamas digest C3 and C4 grasses more efficiently. Mater retention times for horses are around 27 hours, while for rabbits around 7 hours. [0]

Scientists classify plants as C3 and C4, depending on the pathways that they use to capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. C3 are the cool-season grasses while C4 are warm-season grasses.

And just like cames, llamas also regurgitate their food and chew it as cud. Llamas prefer to eat tall, coarse bunchgrasses, highly concentrated of virtually indigestible carbohydrates, regardless of the season and part of the year.

Differences Between A Llama’s And An Alpaca’s Stomach

Llamas and alpacas have similar gastric morphology. The only difference between llama’s and alpaca’s stomachs is in the proportion of their stomach compartments and the intestines.

Because of better adaptation to arid conditions, llamas have different proportions of their digestive system compared to alpacas. Llamas have more spacious fermentation chambers compared to alpacas; this allows them to more easily digest and extract more nutrients from hard-to-digest carbs. [1]

Alpacas are more selective of what they eat. They prefer plants that are high in nutrients, like long leaves, forbs, and short grasses.

When compared to other ruminants like sheep, both the llamas and alpacas have a relatively big distal fermentation chamber.

Llama Stomach Compartments And Anatomy 

Compared to ruminants who have stomachs with four chambers, llamas have three-chambered ones. Those three compartments are the rumen, reticulum, and abomasum; llamas lack the distinct separation of omasum and abomasum. 

Photographs of a llama (Lama glama) stomach complex fixated in situ (with both the C1 and the C3 opened for access to the inside). Top: lateral right view (oesophagus pointing towards the right side of the picture), corresponding to the drawing in Fig. 2. Bottom left: dorsal view (oesophagus pointing towards the top of the picture). Bottom right: frontal view (oesophagus opening pointing towards the viewer). Note the relationships of the C2 to both the C1 and the C3 compartments. The C3 is located cranially, ventrally and caudally to the C2. The specimen did not originate from the present study but had been produced earlier by Urs Müller, preparator at the Institute of Veterainary Anatomy, Vetsuisse Faculty, University of Zurich

Figure: Photographs of a llama (Lama Glama) stomach complex fixated in situ (with both the C1 and the C3 opened for access to the inside). Top: lateral right view (esophagus pointing towards the right side of the picture). Bottom left: dorsal view (esophagus pointing towards the top of the picture). Bottom right: frontal view (esophagus opening pointing towards the viewer). Note the relationships of the C2 to both the C1 and the C3 compartments. The C3 is located cranially, ventrally, and caudally to the C2.

The first compartment (C1), the rumen, is the biggest of the three and comprises 83% of the total stomach volume. It is located within the abdominal cavity and is divided by a horizontal pillar into cranial and caudal sacs. This compartment is used for the fermentation of food and the absorption of water, volatile fatty acids, and other solutes. Llama’s rumen has a pH value between 6.4 and 7.0. 

The second compartment (C2), the reticulum, lies to the right side of C1, and has deep cells in its wall, just like the first compartment. It is located between C1 on the left and the liver on the right side. It is kidney-like in shape and has thick walls. The reticulum makes up 6% of the total stomach volume. It is used for fermentation and absorption of water, volatile fatty acids, and other solutes, just like the first compartment. Llama’s reticulum has a pH value of 6.4-7.0.

The third compartment (C3), the abomasum, is a tubular structure that extends on the right side of C2. The abomasum is 20-27.5 inches long (50–70 cm) and makes up 11% of a llama’s stomach volume. The third compartment is also used for the absorption of water and other solutes. The llama’s abomasum has a pH value of 6.5 in its cranial part, and between 2 and 3 in its caudal part.

Baby llamas (crias) have a stomach similar to adult llamas; the only difference is the smaller size of the C1 and C2 compartments, compared to C3. [2]

The surface of C1 is not papillated and consists of nonkeratinized squamous epithelium. As we mentioned, the C1 compartment consists of two sacks, the cranial and caudal. The front surfaces of these two sacks contain small glandular pouches. 

Almost the entire surface of C2 is glandular except for one small part. This glandular area is divided by a series of intersecting crests.

Unlike the ruminant’s reticulum, the second stomach chamber in llamas is distinctly separated from the first compartment. It is connected to a third compartment through a tubular passage.

The mucosa of the third stomach department is entirely glandular with three pattern areas and two types of the mucosa. It is structurally divided into fifths; the first 4/5 contains mucosal glands and the last 1/5 contains true gastric glands.

The openings between the C1 and C2 and between the C2 and C3 are smaller than the openings between rumen and reticulum or between reticulum and omasum in ruminants of similar body size. This might be one of the reasons why camelids have a lower food intake compared to them.

Despite the similarities between stomach structures, it should be noted that the compartments of the llama’s stomach are not morphologically analogous to the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum of ruminants. [3]

How A Llama’s Stomach Helps With Food Digestion

All three compartments of the llama’s stomach play a role in food digestion.

The first compartment has no digestive enzymes – it is a fermentation vat full of microorganisms that convert cellulose into digestible nutrients. The food stays there for over 60 hours and is continually mixed by strong, rhythmic contractions of the forestomach. In the resting or sleeping llamas, the stomach contracts 3-4 times per minute. 

The food then moves to the second compartment where the llama absorbs nutrients and water from the food. The animal can belch, regurgitate that semi-digested food and chew it even further in its mouth.

Finally, the food moves into the last compartment where the food remainings are rather dry – this is a result of the water absorption that takes place in the cranial four-fifths.

Many animals will ingest different amounts of dust, sand, grit, and soil with their food. One study examining this occurrence in llamas found that despite the animal eating such particles along with their normal food, dust and sand were not found in the first stomach compartment. This suggests that llamas have a sort of washing mechanism that removes sand. [4]

Final Thoughts

This concludes our article going over how many stomachs do llamas have to an end. Here, we explained that a llama’s stomach consists of 3 parts, C1, C2, and C3. These are similar to the rumen, reticulum, and abomasum in ruminants. The first compartment is the largest and takes about 83% of the total stomach size.

Llamas have similar stomach morphology to camels and alpacas; the only difference is in the length of the intestines. 


References

[0] Sponheimer, Matt, et al. “Digestion and passage rates of grass hays by llamas, alpacas, goats, rabbits, and horses.” Small Ruminant Research 48.2 (2003): 149-154.

[1] Vater, Anke Lisa, Elisabeth Zandt, and Johann Maierl. “The topographic and systematic anatomy of the alpaca stomach.” The Anatomical Record (2021).

[2] Timm, Karen I., Barbara J. Watrous, and Bradford B. Smith. “Radiographic contrast gastrointestinal study of the neonatal llama.” Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound 40.6 (1999): 596-605.

[3] Fowler, Murray. Medicine and surgery of camelids. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

[4] Hatt, Jean-Michel, et al. “Preliminary evidence for a forestomach washing mechanism in llamas (Lama Glama).” Mammalian Biology (2021): 1-8.

Photo reference:

Preliminary evidence for a forestomach washing mechanism in llamas (Lama glama) – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Photographs-of-a-llama-Lama-glama-stomach-complex-fixated-in-situ-with-both-the-C1-and_fig1_352464532 [accessed 21 Jan, 2022]

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