Camels inhabiting the Andes in South America? Sounds quite surprising! Thinking of camels, the One-humped camel or Dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) and the Two-humped camel or Bactrian camel (Camelus ferus) from the African and Asian deserts come to one's mind. But these tall camel species have close relatives in South America - the smaller Llamas or South American camels. This group consists of just two species too: the Guanaco (Lama guanacoë), the wild ancestor of the domestic Llama and Alpaca, and the even smaller and daintier Vicuna (Lama vicugna). Reaching a length of about 1,5 m, a shoulder height of almost one metre and a weight of 55 kg, the Vicuna is the smallest camel species. Besides their size the South American camels differ from the African and Asian species in many markings: Among other things they don't have fat storages in the form of humps and are not able to endure without water for a longer time.
Their hoofs are thinner and firmer than the ones of the Dromedary and the Bactrian camel, an adaptation to their habitat. The sandy soil of the deserts and semi-deserts, where the African and Asian species live, requires broad and soft soles to prevent the heavy animals from subsiding. There's a large layer of soft connective tissue on the soles of the Dromedary and the Bactrian camel. But the Vicuna and the Guanaco inhabit plateaus of the Andes with quite stony ground, which requires thin and firm hoofs. The fur of the Vicuna varies from yellowish brown to reddish brown - belly, chest, flanks and the insides of the legs are whitish. Their neck is quite long and thin, their head large and plump with a short muzzle. The ears are long and the eyes are very large. Both are the major sense organs of the permanent vigilant Vicunas.
The area, which is inhabited by the Vicunas, the so called Altiplano, is an arid and cold mountain habitat at an altitude of 3700 to 5500 metres, above the timber line but below the snow line. It's a flat, at most slightly hilly landscape, dominated by grass plants and often struck by heavy storms. The Altiplano is an area of very little rain, still water is available - an important precondition for the presence of Vicunas. It's originated by the dew of nightly fogs. Because of the Altiplano's altitude, the air is quite low in oxygen. That is why Vicunas are in need of a very efficient blood circulation system to supply their cells with sufficient oxygen. Their heart is about 50% larger than the ones of mammals of similar size and their red blood corpuscles show some adaptations too. Vicunas feed on the grass plants, which characterize the Altiplano. The incisors get worn out very soon by the hard food, but they are growing continuously - another special adaptation of the Vicuna. All camel species ruminate, but don't belong to the phylogenetic group of the "real" ruminants. Both groups developed the ability to ruminate independently to exploit their nutrition, which is very low in energy content, more efficiently. Vicunas live in family groups with five to twenty members. Another form of social organization is the only-male-group, consisting exclusively of males, sometimes in large numbers. Besides these groups there are solitary males too. The family group is dominated by an adult male, which keeps itself apart from the harem and the young most of the time.
The family group is territorial and marks its territory by heaps of faeces, which are used by all members of the group. Vicunas crossing the territory's borders from the outside are attacked by the male and driven out. But it may also happen, that another adult male proves to be stronger than the group-male. In such a case the new male takes the territory and the harem and the old male is driven out. The well-developed young are born after a long pregnancy of almost one year. The time they stay together with the family group is relativly short; young males are driven out at an age of four to nine months, whereas young females may stay until they are almost one year old. Vicunas reach a maximum age of 20 years.
The relationship between man and the Vicuna has been and still is quite diverse. Some native tribes inhabiting the Andes, honoured the Vicuna as a holy animal, whereas other tribes just saw a valuable bag in it. Already at the time of the advanced civilization of the Incas the use of the Vicunas wool played an important role. For the Spanish conquerors the wool was of great value too. As long as the animals have just been caught, shorn and then released again, the stocks of the Vicuna were not in danger. But they also have been hunted and killed for their fur, resulting in a continuous decline of their numbers. Already in 1825 Simón Bolívar, the founder of the state of Peru, enacted a law to protect the Vicuna. This is why the Vicuna achieved a symbolic status in Peru. But in spite of all efforts, like the setting-up of nature reserves, the Vicuna is still classified as endangered nowadays. But if the efforts for its preservation are continued consistently, there is a good chance for the Vicuna to go on inhabiting its bleak Altiplano.