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    Understanding Camelid Body Language Part 1: Ears

    What does it mean typed on paper with a llama sitting next to the words.

    If you provide care for camelids (In this resource, camelid(s) is referring only to llamas and alpacas) at your sanctuary, then having a good understanding of their body language is vital to successful relationships and care practices. While camelids have different vocalizations that communicate important information, their body language can also provide vital insight into their emotional states and health, if you are able to interpret them properly. This resource is part of a series on camelid body language and provides a brief introduction to the different ways camelids communicate with their ears. Through this series, you will learn to identify different meanings behind ear/head/tail/body positions and how context and the combination of these body positions can provide a fuller picture of what is being expressed. Let’s take a general look at body language in camelids before taking a closer look at ear positions.

    Body Language

    Body language can help you better understand your resident’s wishes and emotional and mental states, as well as help you identify signs of illness. Understanding a resident’s body language can allow you to catch early signs of illness or recognize social issues among the herd that may be negatively affecting a resident. Body language also tells you a lot about a resident’s comfort level around different individuals and during different situations. This allows caregivers to tailor these situations and their own behaviors to better meet the needs of the individual better. In short, body language is important to know!

    In camelids, there are a number of things to pay close attention to: their ears, their head, their neck, their tail, and their overall body position. While each of these areas can provide information about an individual, the whole of them read together will provide the best overall interpretation.

    But what do you look for in terms of ear position, and what can it mean? Let’s take a closer look!

    Ear Positioning In Camelids

    You can tell a lot from looking at a camelid’s ears!

    a drawing of a green ambassador resident llama that is happy

    If you care for llama residents, you know that llama ears are pronounced, tall, fairly rigid in that they keep their shape (aren’t droopy or folded), and curved, and able to move back and forth and out to the sides. They are sometimes described as “banana-shaped”.

    An alpaca’s ears are shorter with a more “spear-like” shape. They use them similarly in terms of body language.

    a drawing of a green ambassador resident alpaca that is happy

    Abnormal Ear Conformation
    Some camelids may be born with congenital defects that cause the ear to be shortened, curled back, or bent. Others may have sustained an injury that changed the conformation of one or both ears or has an ear infection or parasites which cause abnormal ear movement. Their ears may not stand the same as a typical camelid’s ears and care must be taken to learn what movement their ears are capable of and what their position may mean for that individual. Understanding camelid ear placement can also help you detect new injuries or illnesses and treat them immediately. Applying a general concept of camelid communication through ear placement may not be effective in this situation and could lead to misunderstandings and an unhappy resident. Remember, all residents are individuals and while learning their species-specific behaviors is vital, so is learning about the individual.

    While the full meaning of ear positioning comes with context and understanding tail and head positions, there are some basic positions to know! You will see a bit later how the combination of ear and tail/head/body position can provide a fuller picture of what their body language is “saying”.


    A camelid’s neutral ears will generally be vertical, not cocked forward or laid back or out to the side. 

    Everyone Is An Individual
    Even if a resident doesn’t have a congenital abnormality or illness or parasite affecting the conformation or position of their ears, their ears at a neutral level may be a little more relaxed, coming out to the side a bit or otherwise different than that listed above. Careful observation of residents will allow you to know what is “normal neutral” for each individual.

    Example of normal llama ears.
    an example of normal alpaca ears


    If a camelid resident is feeling alert or curious, their ears will be up and forward-facing. You might notice this when a resident sees someone coming into sight, hears a noise, or is otherwise concerned or curious about a change in their environment.

    example of alert ears on a lllama
    example of alert ears on an alpaca


    If a camelid resident is resting or generally feeling calm, their ears may drop down to the side a bit, or even might rest back and to the side a bit. Not droopy, but relaxed. You can distinguish this from mild displeasure by observing the context and position of their tail, head, and/or body. For example, if a resident has just had a nice nibble and is recumbent in the sun (in a sitting position) with their tail down, and their ears are down and out a bit on each side, there is a good chance they are resting and feeling relaxed. 

    example of relaxed llama ears
    example of relaxed alpaca ears

    Mild Displeasure

    If a camelid resident is uncomfortable, upset, or dislikes something about a situation, they may lay their ears back a bit, but not all the way back. Their ears are generally at a slight angle pointing towards their back, and they will lay back farther the more upsets they become.

    an example of ear position in a llama who is mildly displeased
    example of alpaca ear position when mildly displeased

    Moderate Displeasure

    If the discomfort or displeasure of a camelid resident increases, their ear will generally lay back, but they will still be level with their head, which will likely remain horizontal. At this point, their ears are not pinned against their neck.

    example of ear posiiotn in a llam who is moderately displeased
    example of alpaca ear position when moderately displeased

    Serious Displeasure/Warning

    An especially displeased camelid with pin their ears all the way back and lift their head, point up into the air. While all the above states should be taken seriously and steps should be taken to lower any discomfort or anxiety, this body language is a grave warning that they are especially displeased, and whatever is happening to make them feel threatened or uncomfortable should stop immediately before they take defensive (spitting) or offensive (kicking, biting, or charging) measures in an attempt to stop whatever it is that is upsetting them.

    example of ear position in a seriously displeased llama
    example of alpaca ear position when seriously displeased


    Sometimes when a camelid resident is listening, their ears will turn out, forward, back, or down a bit as they seek to identify a sound. One or both ears may move about, which can at times look similar to relaxed or anxious ears, so be sure to look for context and movement!

    example of ear position when a llama is listening
    example of ear position when an alpaca is listening

    The Full Picture

    As you may have noticed, sometimes ear position can look quite similar but be expressing different emotional states. In order to get the full picture of what a camelid resident is trying to “say”, it is important to understand the context of the situation you are witnessing, as well as how the tail and head are positioned. While the above is a great introduction to camelid body language and can certainly help you have a better idea of what your camelid residents may be experiencing or expressing, you will learn through this series on body language that nuance is important and knowing about ear, tail, AND head position will allow you to have a clearer picture of that is being “said”. For now, observe your camelid residents and see what their ears are telling you!


    Exotic Animal Care And Management | Google Books

    Recommended Practices In Caring For Llamas & Alpacas | Ohio State University

    Alpaca And camelid Behavior | Kush Veterinary Clinic

    Human Ability To Interpret Alpaca Body Language | Journal Of Veterinary Behavior

    Behavioral Clues For Detection Of Illness In Wild Animals: Models In Camelids And Elephants

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