Llamas are herd animals and have a strong social structure within the herd grouping. Herd safety and the care and protection of immature offspring are a combination of herd and individual behaviors. Llamas are boldly inquisitive as well as cognitive and intelligent. They are able to gather data, assess the information gathered, and react appropriately. They react with nonchalance, caution, fight, or flight as dictated by circumstances. Individual temperaments range from “laid back” to “high-strung” and the spectrum of individual temperaments contribute to herd responses.
Llamas have an exaggerated territoriality compared to most species. The drive to establish and hold territory is strongest in the male llama. Males mark out a territory that they protect from trespassing males with undiminished intensity 365 days a year. They establish a consistent boundary as well as a series of dung piles that help mark the territory. A dominant male will allow females into his territory until the stocking (feeding) capacity is reached. Beyond that capacity he will drive out new females with the same intensity used against invading males. The male will also drive out his own offspring, both male and female, when they become adolescent. This guards against inbreeding and overpopulation. In a natural situation, without mitigation by human husbandry, this is an important survival tool. In the high altitude ecosystem llamas naturally occupy, forage is sparse and fragile. Overpopulation could harm forages to the extent that annual regeneration would not occur resulting in herd starvation. Male territoriality insures the survival of core herds and mortality in the greater population is focused in the animals occupying the uncontrolled regions peripheral to the claimed territories.
Because of their exagerrated territorial nature, llamas have some unique behaviors. Though they have a strong social presence with herd mates, their individual demeanor is detached and aloof. They do not like physical touching among themselves or even with their own offspring beyond nursing contact. There is an palpable tension within the herd as demonstrated by constant shifting, posturing, aggression, and submission. Llamas interpret all movements and contact about them as territorial invasion and thus maintain this constant tension. When territorial challenges occur between llamas, they are directed at the head/ears, forelegs and flanks via biting and kicking. Thus, they are quite protective of these areas. Spitting is a territorial manifestation that typically precedes physical confrontations and can serve as a warning as well as an act of aggression. In close confinement management, the territorial aggression of multiple males can be problematic as battles and sparring are ongoing. Gelding (castration) is effective in lessening the intensity of territorial confrontations among males and is a viable option for managing larger numbers of non-breeding males.
In the presence of humans, llamas will be relaxed until contact is initiated at which time they will become reticent and withdraw out of reach. They will typically react to human contacts with territorial behaviors, though not as aggressively as when approached by other llamas. They can learn to tolerate human contact by developing trust and understanding the contact is unrelated to territorial invasion.
To effectively understand and work with llamas, an understanding of territorial behavior is requisite. The behavior is constant, strong and predictable. Understanding llama territoriality is a great ally in managing and handling the animals while failing to understand or disregarding the behavior ensures frustration and ineffective management.
Llama have a quiet demeanor, but do make a variety of sounds which are specific to certain situations. Humming is their most frequent and broadly employed vocal communication. Mothers and babies appear to communicate via humming and responses to changes in llamas’ social environment often involve humming. The tone of the humming assumes an inflection that communicates the mood ie., irritated, inquisitive, pensive, etc. If danger is sensed, an alarm call that sounds like a deep, guttural laugh warns herdmates to be alert and ready to respond. Loud screaming and squealing is common during territorial battles or contested breeding activity. During the act of breeding, the male will emit a repetitive, rythmic, gurgling sound referred to as orgling.