I’m always amazed at how many animals there are. I feel like I have a fairly decent knowledge of animals, and yet I’m constantly acquiring knowledge of new animals. Even within mammals, where my best knowledge is, I’m still ‘discovering’ species. Today’s animals is one of those, the vicuna. I’d never heard of vicunas until I was flipping through my Encyclopedia of Mammals and caught sight of the entry. So then I thought I’d blog about it.

I’ve heard of alpacas and llamas. You probably have too. I’ve even heard of their wild counterpart, the guanaco. So I thought that was pretty much it; two domesticated camelids in South America, and one wild one. But I was wrong. There’s a fourth one, and it’s the vicuna. Yup, vicunas are South American camelids, which is a group of ungulates (hoofed mammals) that includes the four South American species and two camel species. Vicunas are wild, and live in the high Andes. They rarely venture lower than 3,500 meters, and spend most of their time in semi-arid mountain grasslands.

A vicuna looking lonely below a big mountain peak.
A vicuna looking lonely below a big mountain peak.

So how do you tell a vicuna from a guanaco? First off, vicunas are the smallest camelids in the world. A vicuna is one-fourth the size of a guanaco. It is also more refined than guanacos, with an elegant neck and body. The vicuna’s body is also lighter than that of a guanaco. Vicunas are also distinguished by having rodent-like incisors, which are only covered by enamel on one side. Other characteristic of the vicuna are a large heart, and blood cells that have a greater affinity for oxygen than normal. These adaptations allow the vicuna to survive in its high-altitude  environment, where oxygen levels are low.

Vicunas mate in March or April, and have a very strange mating style. Unlike most other mammals, where males mount the female while standing, vicunas choose to be lazy, and mate while lying on their chests. Young vicunas remain with their mother for at least 8 months, and usually suckles until ten months of age.

Herds of vicuna usually consists of 6-10 females and juveniles led by a dominant male. This male guards the herd an defends their territory. Territories are important to vicuna, as they require daily water intake and thus suitable grazing areas are sparse. The vicuna’s incisors are specially adapted to its diet of rough grasses; they continuously grow so they are not worn down quickly. Once again the feeding habits of vicunas betray their laziness – young vicunas often lay down to graze.

A vicuna with a young calf. So cute!
A vicuna with a young calf. So cute!

One of the most prominent features of the vicuna is its wool. It has the finest wool of any animal on the planet, and it is also extremely warm. Scales on each hair interlock with one another and trap warm air, creating an insulating layer of wonderful warmth. Due to these properties, vicuna wool is highly prized, and hunting of vicunas reduced their numbers to 6,000 in the 1960s. Luckily, someone noticed the problem and vicuna hunting was banned, and today their numbers have rebounded to 350,000 in the wild. It is now illegal to gather wool from a dead vicuna, so every three years wild vicunas are rounded up and shorn for their precious wool. A vicuna scarf costs about $1500. I don’t know about you, but I would never pay that much for a scarf, no matter how soft it is.

Vicunas are awesome animals, and hopefully they stick around for a long while. It’s nice to read about a successful conservation story for once, instead of all the morose ones floating about. So thank you, Mr. Vicuna, for being so robust and hardy and wonderful.

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