This is the smallest member of the Camelidae family, and it has been highly prized down the centuries for its very soft wool. It is just a quarter of the weight of the guanaco but has a similar body form, with a long, slender neck and thin legs.
Vicunas are related to guanacos and camels. They live on high-altitude grasslands in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Vicunas are seldom found below about 3,500 m (11,500 ft). At this height, the conditions are cold and dry, so vicunas never stray far from a source of running water.
The vicunas tawny-brown coat is thick and woolly and longest on the sides. It enables the animal to tolerate the cold, snow and ice of its mountain habitat.
The vicuna has teeth more like those of rodents than other hoofed mammals. The lower incisors grow throughout the animal’s lifetime. The teeth are constantly being worn away by the tough alpine grasses that make up its diet. Vicunas are ruminants, which means that they digest their plant food with the help of bacteria in the stomach, and they chew half-digested food, or cud, to help with the digestion process. Eyesight is their most acute sense while hearing is fair and smell poor.
They are especially adapted to living at high altitude.
Living in family groups controlled by a dominant male, vicunas graze during the day. Gregarious animals, vicunas live in groups of up to 15 females led by a male, or in all-male herds. The harem band lives in a territory which is fiercely guarded by the adult male; at the first sign of any danger he alerts the females so that they can escape. Male troops consist mainly of young animals and do not have a specific territory but wander nomadically. Since most of the best grazing is appropriated by the territorial family males, these nomads are continually trespassing and being driven away. Rival males have a characteristic habit of spitting at each other as they fight. Young will ultimately be driven from the herd by the resident male.
They can be vulnerable to attacks by mountain lions (pumas); the young are also at risk from foxes. Vicunas are constantly alert to danger, communicating with other members of the herd by means of a shrill whistle. Vicunas are fast, graceful animals. They can run at speeds of up to 50 kph (30 mph) in the thin mountain air over long distances, even at high altitudes. Their hearts are enlarged to pump their thick blood efficiently around the body.
The female gives birth to 1 young after a gestation period of between 10 and 11 months. The young can stand and walk soon after birth and suckles for about 10 months. Vicunas have long been hunted by man for their fine wool and meat, but despite this, a few years ago the vulnerable population was said to be on the increase again.
Distribution: Occurs in western South America at altitudes of 3500 – 5800 m (11,700 – 19,300 ft) in the Andean mountain region of Peru, Bolivia, north-western Argentina and northern Chile.
Habitat: Alpine grasslands.
Weight: 45 – 55 kg (99 – 121 lb); males are heavier.
Length: 161 – 184 cm (63 – 72 in), including tail; up to 96cm (38 in) tall.
Maturity: About 24 months.
Gestation Period: 330 – 350 days; weaned 6 – 8 months later.
Breeding: Single calf born during February or March.
Food: Herbivorous, feeding mainly on grass, which inflicts heavy wear on the teeth.
Lifespan: 20 years in the wild; up to 25 in captivity.
The head is quite small and wedge-shaped; the ears are triangular.
The vicuna is the only artiodactyl whose incisor teeth, at the front of the mouth, grow throughout its life.
This unusual mane on the chest is made up of hairs up to 30 cm (12 in) long
The coat is light brown above, with white areas on the underparts.
As dusk falls, the herd members will retreat to a separate area at higher altitude, where they will sleep.