Physiology of the Llama

Llamas have a modified, three compartment rumen. They utilize their feed very efficiently and require only 5-10% the upkeep of a horse or mule. They produce a correspondingly small amount of pelleted feces that is low in nitrogen content. The llama has the unique capacity of recycling urea for further digestion, thus fully utilizing protein in their forage and lowering the amount of nitrogen excreted in feces and urine. This allows them to subsist on lower protein forage than other ruminants and simple-stomached species.

Llamas are browsers, taking small amounts of forage from a wide variety of plants. They naturally do their heaviest foraging early and late in the day and will typically have a short midday intake as well. The rest of the day they will seek cover and lie down to eructate and chew their cud. Llamas are intuitive about poisonous plants and naturally avoid toxic portions or growth stages of some plants as well as totally avoiding highly toxic species. They are self-limiting in their consumption of forage and don’t tend to overeat. They also like to balance the moisture content of their browse by eating a mixture of dry and more succulent plant material.

Llamas are able to function normally at a low level of hydration. They will drink on a daily basis (2-3 gal.) in a static environment, but are capable of going for extended periods (days) without water. This is an adaptation to the arid climate in which they naturally live. It allows them to travel long distances between water sources while foraging or to wait for precipitation to leave trapped short term water sources. They also are able to utilize moisture on forage in the form of dew or frost and can utilize bulk water sources whether fresh or stagnant. They actually seem to prefer stagnant water, possibly for minerals that dissolve in the water as it sits in rock or soil basins.

Llamas work at undiminished capacity at low or high altitudes. Their red blood cells (RBC’s) are elliptically shaped which increases the surface area available to hold oxygen. Additionally, the oxygen is held at a lower surface tension and given up more easily to tissue the RBC”s supply. This results in a greater percentage of the oxygen the higher capacity RBC’s carry actually being used.

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