Vicugna vicugnavicugna

Geographic Range

Vicugna vicugna is found solely in South America, predominantly in the mountainous regions of Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador. Vicugna vicugna is native to all of these countries except Ecuador. The population of vicunas in Ecuador, about 2,000 animals, was introduced in 1988 (McLaren,2019). Of the populations in these South American countries, Peru has the largest number of vicunas with about 218,000 animals from an estimation report in 2016. Bolivia has the largest population of wild vicunas (New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2008). According to the IUCN Red List, the global population of vicunas is around 350,000 animals. (Grupo Especialista en Camelidos Sudamericanos, 2019; McLaren, September 15, 2019; New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2008)


Vicunas are found in semiarid grasslands and plains at elevations ranging between 3,000-5,000m. Individuals generally graze throughout the day at lower elevations and then move higher at night. Some populations of V. vicugna are found in the Central Andes which has temperatures that average 2 to 8° C during the day and temperatures drop even lower at night.

Vicunas are herbivores that eat a variety of plants that grow at these elevations such as grasses and shrubs. Grasses make up around 59-72% of their diet and shrubs represent approximately 16-19% of their diet (Borgnia, Vila and Cassini, 2010). Of the grasses that vicunas eat, almost 50% of their diet is made up of two grasses: panicgrass (Panicum chloroleucum) and saltgrass (Distichlis spp.). Vicugna vicugna are dependent on water that cannot be obtained from their food and therefore habitat places where water is readily accessible (Mosca Torres and Puig, 2010). (Borgnia, et al., 2010; Mosca Torres and Puig, 2012; New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2008)

  • Range elevation
    3,500 to 5750 m
    to 18864.83 ft
  • Average elevation
    4500 m
    14763.78 ft

Physical Description

Vicugna vicugna is the smallest of the camel family (Camelidae). They have long necks and legs and a slender body. The incisors of vicunas never stop growing and are characterized by having enamel solely on one side. Vicugna vicugna wool is extremely fine and soft, making it very desirable for use in clothing. The coloring of vicunas is generally light brown on their barrel with an off-white on their belly. The wool is longer on their neck and belly for protection against cold. Vicunas tend to be only 1.5 meters tall and weigh around 50 kg. They tend to be between 1.1 and 1.9 meters long. Vicugna vicugna are distinguishable from other camels, namely llamas (Lama glama), alpacas (Vicugna pacos), and guanacos (Lama guanicoe) by their significantly smaller and more fragile build. Vicugna vicugna have limited colorization in comparison to the possible colorization of alpacas or llamas. Vicugna vicugna fiber is also much finer than any of the other species. In addition, V. vicugna have light faces in comparison to the darker face of the guanaco. (Bonacic, 2012; Grupo Especialista en Camelidos Sudamericanos, 2019; New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2008)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    40 to 60 kg
    88.11 to 132.16 lb
  • Average mass
    45 kg
    99.12 lb
  • Range length
    1.1 to 1.9 m
    3.61 to 6.23 ft


The mating season of Vicugna vicugna is reported to be from mid-February to April, however some evidence exists that sexual activity continues throughout the whole year (Koford, 1957). When copulation occurs, the female vicuna lies prone and the males straddles her chest with his forelegs and lies on her back. The female appears to remain calm, while the male acts excited as seen by his trembling ears, flaring nostrils, and flipping tail (Koford, 1957). Copulation varies from 10 to 50 minutes (Fernández-Baca, 1993).

The male defends his territory year round however during mating season direct defense of females is necessary (Bosch et al., 1987). The resident male mates with females who live in his territory, however at times he will cross into another's territory and attempt to herd females back to his territory and copulate with them. When this occurred, the resident male defended his females by intercepting the invading vicuna and chasing him back.

The mating behaviors of vicunas do not seem to affect social structure. There does not appear to be any kind of post-copulatory pairing (Koford, 1957). (Bosch and Svendsen, 1987; Fernández-Baca, 1993; Koford, 1957)

The mating season for vicunas is January to April (Fernández-Baca, 1993). Vicunas only give birth to one offspring per year. The gestation period is around 11 months, with an average of 345 days (Fernández-Baca, 1993). Vicunas give birth standing up and do not lick their offspring after the live birth (Koford, 1957). The offspring remain with their mother for at least 8 months (Bosch, 1987). Weaning occurs around 6-8 months. Females reach sexual maturity around 1 year, however in the wild it has been reported that sexual maturity occurs a few months later (Koford, 1957). Males reach sexual maturity closer to 3 years of age. (Arzamendia, 2018) At about a year of age, the yearlings leave their family group to join a bachelor groups (Koford, 1957). (Arzamendia, et al., 2018; Fernández-Baca, 1993; Koford, 1957)

  • Breeding interval
    Vicunas breed generally breed once a year.
  • Breeding season
    Mating normally occurs from January to April. However some evidence exists that when the females and males are kept separate, they show sexual activity year round. (Fernandez-Baca, 1993).
  • Range number of offspring
    1 (low)
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range gestation period
    330 to 350 days
  • Average gestation period
    345 days
  • Range weaning age
    6 to 10 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    12 to 24 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    12 to 36 months

Vicuna parental investment is low, with the females not acting extremely protective of offspring. If females are alarmed, they will leave their offspring temporarily (Koford, 1957).

The female is generally the one to end nursing by walking away and thus preventing her offspring to nurse (Koford, 1957).

The parental investment of the male is seen in providing safe territory for the young to nurse and grow up in. Since the male vicuna spends his time defending his territory and females, the mother and her offspring are able to graze and nurse in peace (Bosch, 1987). (Bosch and Svendsen, 1987; Koford, 1957)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • male


Vicunas live for approximately fifteen to twenty years. In the wild, the mass of the animal at birth affects the first-year survival rate, which is a common trend among many species. Puma predation also affects lifespan, and accounts for most of the deaths of both calves and adult vicunas. (Donadio, et al., 2012)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    15 to 20 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    17 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    15 to 20 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    17 years


Vicunas are a social species and live in one of three social groups: family, bachelor, or solitary herds (Oyama, 2006). Family herds are territorial and are defended by the resident male. If threatened, the resident male will chase off the intruder. All females live in a family herd while juvenile males will live in bachelor herds. Older males are chased from family groups and make up the solitary groups of vicunas (Oyama, 2006). Vicunas are mobile and tend to use the transverse gallop as their most common asymmetrical gait which is a characteristic of many large cursorial mammals (Pfau, 2011). (Oyama, 2006; Pfau, et al., 2011)

  • Average territory size
    0.17 km^2

Home Range

Territory size of Vicugna vicugna averages 17 hectares per family group, with about 3.4 hectares per animal( Franklin, 1974). (Franklin, 1974)

Communication and Perception

Vicunas mainly perceive the environment via hearing and sight. They have large ears, which suggests that hearing is important to survival and therefore they adapted accordingly. The most vocal way this species communicates is through the alarm call. This is a call the resident male produces when there is a potential threat. It is high pitched in the beginning and lasts about 4 seconds, however the male may repeat the call. When this alarm call is heard, the other animals in the family herd move away from the threat together and with the male following in the rear (Koford, 1957). All vicunas are capable of producing this alarm call but it is most commonly vocalized by the male. (Koford, 1957)

Food Habits

Vicunas are generalist ungulates because they consume more than half of the plant species which are present where they live. They largely eat grasses and shrubs, with Panicum chloroleucum and Distichlis species making up a large portion of their diet. Because vicunas are ruminants, they have physiologic adaptations that allow them to consume fibrous and tough plants that grow in deserts. (Borgnia, et al., 2010)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers


The main predators of vicunas are pumas (Puma concolor). Pumas are reportedly responsible for about 50% of vicuna calf death and 91% of adult vicuna mortality (Dondadio, 2016). The primary defensive behavior of vicuna is to flee. However, V. vicunga have also been known to charge at a threat such as a condor or domestic dog (Koford, 1957). The primary antipredation behavior of vicunas is to avoid pumas by moving to higher elevations at night, when pumas are most active. Vicunas also tend to stay in meadows, where less predation occurs, rather than in canyons, where pumas had cover from which to ambush (Donadio, 2016). Another antipredation behavior is their alarm call. This call is usually voiced by the male of the family group and the other members react to it by taking notice of the threat and then, if necessary, moving away from it (Koford, 1957). (Donadio and Buskirk, 2016; Donadio, et al., 2012; Koford, 1957)

  • Known Predators
    • Andean foxes (Dusicyon culpaeus)
    • Andean condors (Vulur gryphus)
    • pumas (Puma concolor)

Ecosystem Roles

Vicunas play the role of prey in their ecosystem. Their predators are most notably puma (Puma concolor), but also Andean foxes (Lycalopex culpaeus), and occasionally domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Andean condors (Vultur gryphus) scavenge their carcasses. Since vicuna are also herbivores, they affect their ecosystem through eating the grasses and shrubs that live in the Andes mountains. While these grasses live under high grazing pressure from V. vicunga, they do not have lessened productivity; rather they quickly regrow (Donadio, 2016). Puma, vicuna, and the Andean grasses create an ecosystem on which all three organisms are linked in a food chain. The pumas primary diet is vicuna and guanaco, Lama guanicoe (Donadio, 2016). The vicuna primary diet are the Andean grasses. Therefore, puma predation on vicunas help the vegetation in the Andes by limiting their primary predator. However, the grasses are needed to nourish the vicuna, which in turn nourish the pumas. (Donadio and Buskirk, 2016; Donadio, et al., 2012; Koford, 1957)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • coccidian parasites (Coccidia)
  • nematode parasites (Nematoda)
  • Eimeria

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Vicuna fiber is valuable to spin into yarn and sell. This profitable attribute of these camelids led to an overexploitation of the animals, which almost resulted in their extinction in the 1960s (Wawrzyk, 2013). However, due to conservation efforts, V. vicunga numbers are now rising. Besides the positive economic value of their fiber, V. vicunga also provide a tourist attraction which promotes local cities via ecotourism. (Wawrzyk, 2013). (Wawrzyk and Vila, 2013)

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Vicunas do not physically harm humans, but they cause some human-wildlife conflicts by grazing on ranchland. In some cases V. vicugna compete for grazing and water with livestock. Overall though, the general opinion of vicunas is primarily a positive one. (Wawrzyk and Vila, 2013)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Vicugna vicugna is now considered a least concern species with the IUCN Red List. The reported numbers of vicunas are increasing and is currently estimated to be 350,000 mature individuals. There is an action recovery plan as well as education and awareness programs in place for the vicuna. In 1965, when V. vicugna was one of the most threatened species in South America, Peru created a National Vicuna Reserve. Other reserves were created shortly after, such as the Pampa Galeras National Reserve. In an conservation effort, Peru reintroduced vicunas to areas where they historically inhabited. Through these and other efforts, the Vicuna population has drastically increased and is no longer extremely threatened.

Other Comments

In the Incan Empire, only the emperor was allowed to wear wool from vicunas. In fact there consequence for a villager wearing vicuna was the death penalty. Incans also had a very organized system for harvesting the vicuna fiber. Every four years, groups of villagers caught camelids, sheared them, and released them back into the wild (Oyama, 2006). By following a four year rotation, the Inca hoped to maintain the quality of the vicuna fiber without diminishing numbers of the Vicugna vicugna population (Oyama, 2006). The population of vicunas began to decrease towards extinction when the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire and used guns to hunt the vicuna rather than simply catching and releasing the animals (Oyama, 2006). (Oyama, 2006)


Margaret Salter (author), Colorado State University, Nathan Dorff (editor), Colorado State University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


having more than one female as a mate at one time

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


The term is used in the 1994 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Endangered (E), Vulnerable (V), Rare (R), Indeterminate (I), or Insufficiently Known (K) and in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals to refer collectively to species categorized as Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), or Vulnerable (VU).

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


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