One day, a few years ago, I was opening a gate to let some llamas through when I spotted some slugs on the ground. The llamas were standing right there wanting to get into the next field and I made a mistake. I stomped on the slugs.

Instantly I got spat at by one of the females. Right in the face.

It wasn’t a lot of spit, just a bit of grass, but it was a warning.

I was surprised as this was not her normal behaviour. I started to wonder what I had done to warrant this and then it dawned on me. Body language. Mine.

Over the years I had noticed some of the llamas would occasionally stamp a foot as a warning to another llama. What I had done was to open the gate and then, when she was right in front of me, challenge her by stamping my foot. In essence I was saying “Knock this chip off of my shoulder”. She did.

The stamping of the foot is more common with some animals than it is with others. I don’t think I have ever seem Ambassador stamp his foot. With Rain Dancer, however, we see this quite often when he is facing Ambassador over the fences. Usually with him it is one back foot and he will paw at the ground with it. It seems to be a low form of aggression in this case as there is no vocalization or spitting. If he is in a pen and there are some females nearby, he may stick his head through the bars and paw with a front foot. This is not necessarily aggression, but impatience as he clearly wants to get over and have a good sniff at the females. Rain Dancer is an extremely calm animal and he never displays any aggression towards humans, so it seems odd that he will paw the ground at the other llamas. He often paws the ground with a back foot when the females come down to visit and are across the driveway. Maybe this is a sign of frustration as most of them are open and he knows it.

Ear positions

Llamas communicate constantly with their ears. When llamas are alert, the ears will be up and sloped forward. If we see most of the herd all staring in one direction and all ears pointing forward, we can guarantee that they have spotted something unusual to them. There may be a deer in the bush next door, or it may be a coyote, dog or raccoon, but in any case, as far as they are concerned, it is different and we should be watching it. Basically llamas are prey animals and this alertness is a big part of their survival strategy.

The photo on the left shows ears in an alert position.
The ears will be like this when the llamas are focused on something.
When the ears are back as in the photo on the right, it is just a “stay away” signal.
There is no danger of them spitting when the ears are like this
unless they are provoked.

The ear communication in llamas is the easiest for us humans to understand. Basically, the further back the ears are, the more annoyed the llama is. Straight back ears don’t necesarily mean that the llama is going to spit or is even annoyed, sometimes it is an indication that they just don’t want their personal space invaded.

The ears flat back, with the head tilted up position that this llama is showing
is a serious warning. If the offending llama does not retreat
at this display, it will likely get spat at.

Sometimes a cria such as Ginger above, is born a little early
and the ears are very soft and floppy.
It is rather hard for them to communicate with their ears
until the ears get stronger and stand up.

Before spitting at another llama, the ears will be pointing downwards, flat back against the neck. This will be accompanied by an uptilting of the head. This visual threat is important as a pre-spit warning as the llama doesn’t really want to spit. They do not like the taste of the spit and will have to air out their mouth for a long time after they are forced to spit.

If a llama has its ears back, basically it is warning you to stay out of its space. At this point it would not be a good idea to get into a staring match as this seems to communicate aggression to the llama. You might just provoke a spitting match and my money would be on the llama.

Tail positions

The position of the tail is another common signal to other llamas. An alert llama will often have its tail up. There are a number of positions of the tail that obviously mean more to other llamas than it does to us. When the tail is curled forward it signals no aggression.

This tail position is very common when an animal is alert.
It will curl more forward and touch the back to
indicate lack of aggression.

Suppose you are field testing a female with a male and he is sniffing her to determine if she should be bred. If she is not open and is a bit annoyed with him, she will signal this by wagging her tail rapidly back and forth in his face. Her ears will be back. If he ignores these signs, her head will tilt up and the ears will flatten against her neck. That is the final warning for him to back off. If he doesn’t retreat now, he will likely be wearing green.

While the male is sniffing the female, his tail may be wagging back and forth, but this seems to be both excitement and frustration.

When the male backs off, he will often signal non-aggression by putting his neck down and retreating to a far corner of the field.

Neck positions

Combined with a curled forward tail, a submissive crouch with the neck curved down clearly says “I am not looking for trouble”. This is very common with young males when approaching a older male’s fence and you will also see the yearling females adopt the same posture, but I am sure that it means something entirely different as they are often terrible flirts at that age.

Young Llamadeus is showing a typical submissive stance in the photo on the left.
If he was approaching a stud male, his neck would be a little lower and his tail curled up a little more.

Notice that the submissive stance is similar to the stance crias use when nursing.

At one time we had a male that became very aggressive and he would read our body language. One day I was weeding a garden that abutted part of his fence and I was crouched down weeding. To him I was obviously in a submissive posture, putting him in charge and he got his front legs up on the top of the fence and screamed and spat at me. Oops, wrong message. We don’t have him any more.

If you have a male that is pushy and aggressive because he was handled too much when he was younger, he will read your body language for any sign that you might inadvertantly display. An example would be if you were bent down cleaning up the poop piles. If he was to display aggression at this, it would be best to put him in a stall, out of sight while you were cleaning the field.

A male llama will chase another male with his head down and neck straight out. This is a very aggressive signal and means that he is defending his territory.

Young male llamas practice chasing each other around the field and in the photo above
TapDancer is chasing Prospero. They will run around until they tire a bit
and then they will wrestle as in the two photos below.

When llamas wrestle, one of the things they do is apply pressure with their neck
on the other guy’s neck to force him down.
In the photo on the left, Prospero is trying to get a mouthful of fibre on TapDancer’s neck
while TapDancer is going for Prospero’s knees.

Years ago, when we only had a couple of male llamas, we had them in with a flock of sheep. We had observed the llamas wrestling occasionally, as males will do, and noticed that they would each try to bite the other’s knees. This will cause the one being bitten to fold his knee which forces him to lie down, losing the match. One interesting thing that would happen when the llamas were surrounded by the sheep, was that once in a while a sheep, being much shorter, would accidentally butt a llama on the knee. In llama body language this means “I want to wrestle” but obviously this does not have the same meaning in sheep talk. The retaliating llama would then try to bite the sheep on the knee which certainly puzzled the poor sheep. The llama would also be confused as the sheep wouldn’t fold its front legs as a llama would, and as well, was not remotely interested in continuing a wrestling match that it had unknowingly provoked.

Another neck and head position that is common with males is when the neck is bent back and the head is straight up in the air. You may notice this when a stud sniffs the female’s dung pile. The males have what is know as a Jacobsen’s organ in the top of their mouths. This organ is used to decode the scent message in the female’s urine to determine whether she is in estrus. This unusual display is known as flehmen (pronounced flay mun).

We have occasionally taken advantage of this by taking a scoop of the female’s dung pile into the male’s field. If he gets excited after smelling her droppings, we will bring the female in for a visit, otherwise it would be a waste of time as it is not the right time for her to be bred.

Meridian has been put in a field where there had been some females earlier.
He has sniffed the female’s droppings on the ground
and is now decoding the scents.

Body positions

You will often see a male llama standing tall and looking important on the highest point in his field. This is a defensive posture in which he seems to be drawing a line in the sand and saying to any other male “This is my territory”.

Two males in adjoining fields will spend a large part of their time posturing and trying to intimidate each other. The body posturing will be accompanied by vocalizations such as screaming.

Wedding Belle is challenging any of the others to try and take this hill
as well as showing off her newly shorn look.

Territory is particularly important to male llamas and the male with the highest territory on a farm may think that he is the ruler of the whole place. We have one sloped field for a male but the shelter is in the lower part of the field. It was the only practical place to put a shelter as it is against the barn. No matter which male is in that field, they all act in the same way. Their hay is in the shelter so they go inside to eat, but no matter what the weather, they spend the night against the fence on the high side of the field. We get a lot of rain here but that doesn’t bother them, it is more important to be high than dry. In the winter we will see a male totally covered with snow in the morning while the empty shelter is nice and dry. Ambassador’s territory is across the fence and he will spend rainy weather in his shelter which is at the high point of his field.

Pecking order is important in a llama herd and often you will see a female llama posturing on top of a hill. We have small piles in most of the fields and even the youngsters love playing king of the hill and running each other off of the high point.

Georgia has taken posession of the hill today.
In the photo above she is relaxed, but alert, watching for anyone else
to try and join her or force her off of the hill.

In the photo on the left, Margarita is approaching the hill and Georgia’s body language,
with her ears back and tail slightly up, is telling her to back off.

Margarita ignored the warning, climbed up the hill, and Georgia promptly ran her off.

The behaviour in the three photos above is very typical when an animal wants to establish dominance or move up in the pecking order. We have noticed when a new female comes to visit for breeding purposes, that if she has a dominant personality, the first thing she will do is pose on top of a hill. She will make sure that all the rest of the animals in that field notice her, and if no one challenges her, she will come down and mingle with the herd. She has made her statement and the other animals respect that. This usually happens in the moms and babies field so there are a lot of youngsters in there that would not challenge an adult.

If we put a new female in with the herd of adult females, it will be a different story as there are a few females there who will put a newcomer in her place. They will be on a hill very quickly (after they have all run around and had a good sniff) and let the newcomer know exactly who the boss is in this field.

If you are interested in learning more about interacting with your llamas and understanding what their body language is trying to tell you, llama trainer Cathy Spalding at Gentle Spirit Llamas has has produced a wonderful CD entitled “Llama Talk” with over a hundred photos with accompanying descriptive text.

Gentle Spirit Llamas

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