The guanaco is a tall and woolly camelid native to the arid mountains of South America. Due to its mountainous life, the guanaco has meticulously evolved a range of adaptations to thrive at extreme altitudes. Its woolly coat and hardy nature make the guanaco the perfect contestant for domestication, which is exactly what happened. The guanaco is the wild ancestor of the llama – a highly valuable beast of burden for an array of past and present Andean communities, especially for the Incas. The llama is widely used for its meat and exceptionally soft wool.
Guanacos live in moderately-sized herds, composed of females, their young, and a dominant male. Other males form bachelor herds, which may contain as many as 50 males. Their diet consists of grasses and other plants, and predators include the South American cougar and foxes. When threatened, they run, fast. They can reach speeds of 56 km per hour, even over rocky and perilous terrain. Guanacos may even flee by entering the water, as they are excellent swimmers.
As you probably know, llamas spit when threatened. It’s the same for guanacos. Although they are typically docile, when particularly irritated they can spit up to a distance of six feet. This may not seem so intimidating but spitting is more of an intangible expression of displeasure – adults often spit at lower-ranked members to put them in their place.
One of the most impressive adaptations of the guanaco is their significantly increased level of haemoglobin in their blood. Guanacos live at tremendously high altitudes, some populations can be found over 4,000 metres above sea level. Therefore, to survive in the low oxygen levels of this environment, the blood of the guanaco is rich in red blood cells, which carry haemoglobin (the protein that binds to oxygen). A single teaspoon of guanaco blood contains around 68 billion red blood cells – 9 times more than the current human population!
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.