What are the differences and similarities between vicuna and an alpaca? We get this question often when we talk about vicunas and where they came from.
At a glance, these two animals might seem alike. Vicunas and alpacas both have soft wool, short snout, and pointy ears. Vicunas actually look like alpacas with a lot fluffier coats.
But these two are quite different.
In this article, we will explore what makes these 2 animals similar and different so that you can understand them better.
Technically, Both Are Camels
You might be surprised to learn that both of these are members of the Camelidae (camel) family.
Some 45 million years ago, their relative and the first camel called Protylopus, appeared in the rainforests of North America. As time passed, camels evolved, and a group of them migrated into South America, some 3 million years ago.
These camels gave rise to all of the South American cousins, the llamas, alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos.
7,000-6,000 years ago, vicunas got domesticated and gave rise to alpacas. Today, vicunas only exist in their wild form.
A Quick Overview
|Scientific Name||Lama pacos||Vicugna vicugna|
|Common Name||Alpaca |
(fr. Alpaga; ger. Alpaka; es. Alpaca)
(fr. Vigogne; ger. Vikunja; es. Vicuña)
|Size||3 ft (90 cm)||2.8 ft (85 cm)|
|Weight||154.3 lb (70 kg)||99.2 lb (45 kg)|
|Lifespan||15-20 years||15-20 years|
|Distribution||Peru, Bolivia, Chile||Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina|
|Conservation Status||Least Concern||Least Concern (Population increasing)|
Similarities Between A Vicuna And An Alpaca
Both Live In High Altitudes
Vicunas and alpacas live in the high altitudes of the Andes.
Vicunas inhabits semiarid grasslands and plains at elevations ranging from 11,480 to 18,860 ft (3,500–5,750 m).
Alpacas live in humid places of the Andean high plateaus where tender grasses grow, at heights between 9,840 and 15,750 ft (3,000–4,800 m).
They are equipped to thrive in such elevations as vicunas and alpacas both have hair that insulates them well from the freezing climate conditions of the Andes.
Both Have Pointy Ears
Vicuna is the wild ancestor of alpaca. That’s why alpacas inherited some physical characteristics from vicunas – the ear shape.
Both animals have small heads and pointy ears covered in light fur.
One of their cousins, the llama has a completely different ears. Llamas have banana-shaped ones. Read more about it here.
They Both Walk The Same Way
All of the South American camelid cousins walk the same way – they move their legs ipsilaterally.
This means that they first move the legs of one side of the body forward and then move forward the legs of the opposite side.
This allows them to have a longer stride and prevents legs from hitting one another and tripping.
The Biggest Populations Are In Peru
The vicunas and alpacas are distributed throughout the southern Andes of South America. They can be found in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina.
Vicunas were on the brink of extinction in the 1970s, with only 6,000 of them remaining. In recent years, their populations increased to around 350,000 making them not endangered anymore.
Alpacas do not have such problems. It is estimated that there are around 4 million alpacas in the world with 90% of them living in South America.
Peru has around 200,000 vicunas (60% of the world population), and over 3 million alpacas (75%).
In recent years, a significant number of alpacas have been taken to the United States and Australia to be traded as pets, for their wool, and meat.
Differences Between A Vicuna And An Alpaca
Vicunas are small animals. They have slender bodies and long necks and legs. Alpacas are a lot heavier animals than them.
Vicunas can grow around 2.8 ft (85 cm) and weigh 99.2 lb (45 kg) on average. Alpacas are slightly bigger than them with their 3 ft (90 cm) and 154.3 lb (70 kg).
Vicuna Vs Alpaca Wool
Both animals are treasured for their wool quality.
Vicunas have some of the softest and most expensive wool in the world. They have wool that is 12-14 microns in diameter; the wool of alpaca is 20-35 microns.
This means that the vicuna’s wool is softer than the wool of an alpaca – the lower the micron number, the finer and softer the wool.
These two animals can differentiate in their wool color.
Vicunas usually have wool colors ranging from light cinnamon to a pale white. They also have long white fleece on the inside of the legs, stomach, and the base of the neck.
Alpacas, on the other hand, come in more colors. Their fleece can have over 20 color shades, ranging from white to silver, rose gray, fawn, brown, and black.
Want to learn the main differences between guanacos and vicunas? Check this article.
Throughout history, vicunas and alpacas had different uses.
During the Inka Empire, alpacas were a symbol of wealth. People used them for their wool, meat, and skin. Vicunas were used only for specific ritual practices.
Today, vicuna fiber is used for weaving fine cloaks and the cloths obtained from it are very expensive in the international markets.
Today, alpacas are commercially raised for their wool, especially in Peru and Bolivia. People also keep them for their meat and say that they prefer it to the meat of a llama. Alpaca’s dung is used as fuel when there’s no wood to burn around.
As you’ve seen, vicunas and alpacas are similar but quite different animals.
They are both members of the Camelidae family and have pointy ears. Alpacas originated from vicunas and have many similarities with them. The main differences include wool quality, the difference in size, color, and use.
We have a list of animals that have pointy ear tips. Read more about it here.