In Peru, Llamas To The Rescue!

Nov 28, 2023 By Lauren T, Writer Intern
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As the climate warms, glaciers have been shrinking all over the world. Peru’s Uruashraju glacier has been no exception.

Yet, in the wake of disappearing ice, an unexpected hero is coming to the rescue of the local ecosystem.

Did you know that llamas are helping rejuvenate the barren landscape? In a September study, researchers found that llamas restored soil fertility and ecosystem health at remarkable rates in the alpine regions of Peru. Let's find out more.

Climate Change And Indigenous Practices

Domesticated llamas and alpacas, alongside wild vicuñas, are central to local traditions in the Latin American countries of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

Every year, indigenous Quechua herders take their llamas and alpacas to graze in two seasons – the dry and the wet. During the wet season, when there is more rain, the animals graze on the valley floor. During the dry season, when there is less rain, the animals graze on higher wetlands that have been watered by glacier runoff.

Climate change has disrupted this cycle. Now, the community experiences longer and more frequent droughts. This forces herders to overgraze wetlands, as the valley floor has less vegetation. Meanwhile, new land is being exposed as glaciers melt - but these landscapes are low in nutrients, prone to erosion and landslides, and can take hundreds of years to be restored.

The Study

In their study, the researchers discovered that this cycle can be broken. In fact, the llamas themselves are encouraging the growth of more vegetation!

The researchers worked with the Llama 2000 Asociación, a community of farmers, to examine the effect of llama herding on the local ecosystem. They created eight plots of land, each of which measured 925 square meters.

Half of these plots would be occupied by llamas, while the other half would be left empty as control. From 2019 to 2022, the researchers monitored plant life and soil quality in the eight plots.

They were astounded by the results. Compared to the control plots, the llama plots showed a 57% increase in plant cover. Soil quality had also soared, with much higher levels of organic carbon and nitrogen. What’s more, four new plant species were found in years 2 and 3 of the observation period! 

Love for the Llamas!

So how did the llamas work their green magic?

The animals’ dung and fur act as natural fertilizers. Their dung retains moisture and healthy microorganisms.

In the process of grazing and crushing plants, llamas make way for ecological succession - a phenomenon by which the plant species in a habitat change over time. This is because llamas' dung can act as carriers for the new plant species! 

In fact, in an analysis of llama dung, the researchers discovered 12 species of seeds. Five of these species were still capable of germinating. This means that llamas could potentially help spread plant species to barren deglaciated land! 

A similar study in 2020 showed that the dung of wild vicuñas were seeding new vegetation in the high Andes mountains of Peru.

Climate change is radically changing ecosystems. However, the surprising effects of llamas on the environment show that these changes are not necessarily all negative. Ecosystems are far from being contained and unchangeable. While the loss of glaciers is certainly concerning, there’s still hope for new forms of life.