South America


Desert, savanna, scrubland, and forest, including elevations up to 13,000 feet (3,900 meters)

Cool critters

Guanacos are graceful animals related to camels. Pronounced "gwa NAH ko," they live throughout South America in dry, open country in the mountains or on the plains. Guanacos have a calm attitude, so people started to domesticate them for use as pack animals. The result is the llama of today, which is the domesticated version of the guanaco—llamas don’t exist in the wild. Another branch of the family tree is the alpaca, which is also a type of domesticated guanaco raised for its soft wool.

Funny name, familiar face

Everyone knows what a llama looks like, but what are guanacos? Standing less than 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall at the shoulder, guanacos have a slender body, long legs, and a long neck. They are shorter and smaller than their camel relatives. Although they seem delicate, guanacos can weigh up to 265 pounds (120 kilograms). Male guanacos are larger than the females. All guanacos have a thick, wooly coat that can be light brown, brownish yellow, or a rusty red. Their belly, rump, and the backs of the legs are usually white; the head, ears, and nape of the neck are gray. These colors help guanacos blend in with their grassland and desert habitats.

Family matters

Guanacos may live in a family group that includes one adult male, several adult females, and youngsters less than one year of age. Young males kicked out of the herd by the dominant male when they reached sexual maturity often form bachelor herds. The young males stick together for protection and practice fighting skills through play fights. And some males remain by themselves. These guys tend to be mature males looking for females or a herd to take over so they can start their own families.

A male often picks a territory that has high-quality vegetation to help him attract the females. Intense sparring between males, involving biting, spitting, and pushing the opponent to his knees, ensures the gene pool stays diverse—winner takes all, for a time.

Llamas are descendants of wild guanacos that were domesticated 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Andean peoples raise them for wool, meat, and skin and also used them as pack animals.
The extinct large-headed llama was 2 feet (0.6 meters) taller than its descendant, the guanaco.
Camels, guanacos, llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas are all members of the camel family.

The San Diego Zoo received its first breeding pair of guanacos in 1968. We have been working hard for this species' preservation ever since. Today, the Zoo has both guanacos and llamas in Elephant Odyssey. The guanacos live with capybaras and Baird’s tapirs. Keepers say they are a “pretty happy and relaxed group." We also have a llama animal ambassador that you may meet strolling the grounds with a keeper.

The guanacos get different browse materials for enrichment, such as leafy mulberry and acacia branches. Tree guards on all the trees in the exhibit keep the guanacos from eating the bark. Keepers have trained them to stand on the scale and get a dose of fly spray. They get sheared at the Zoo every few years; rolling and rubbing helps them shed in the interim.

There used to be about 50 million guanacos in the world. Today there are less than 600,000, with about 90 percent living in Argentina. Human activities resulting in habitat loss are the main threat to their survival. People consider them pests in parts of South America because they graze in certain regions where farmers keep their sheep.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.