Llama Learning Helps South Americas

Animal science major Laurel Tegland is passionate about camelids. The Akron, Ohio, native, who has been accepted to study veterinary medicine at Ohio State University, spent her first day as a BYU freshman searching for an opportunity to learn more about the animal and its relatives, the alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco, which, along with old-world camels, make up the biological family Camelidae, or "camelids."

Vicuñas
A vicuña mother and baby in the wild near Punta Arenas, Chile.
Tegland's enthusiasm and previous experience at a local zoo earned her a position—that very day—working with BYU's llama herd. Four years later, she continues to study the animals in depth and, in doing so, has the potential to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of South Americans living on the Altiplano.

The Altiplano is a high, mountainous region of South America that includes the countries of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Nearly ten million people live on the Altiplano and of those one half are directly dependent on camelids for their livelihoods, explained Dr. David L. Kooyman, an associate professor of physiology and developmental biology. Dr. Kooyman has made it his mission to improve the lives of these people. He leads a team of 26 scientists in both North and South America and a small group of BYU students—including Tegland—in a massive undertaking to map the entire llama and alpaca genome.

This genetic map will provide invaluable information about multiple genes "that work in concert to cause a particular trait in llamas, such as growth rate, birth weight, reproductive traits, fiber quality, body composition, and so on," Dr. Kooyman said.

This information can then be used to teach the people on the Altiplano how to feed, raise, and breed llamas and alpacas with greater efficiency.

"The areas in which scientists are helping are broad," said Dr. Kooyman. Some members of the team teach people how to maintain sanitary conditions at slaughter houses. Others study the nutritional value of varying native forages. Reproductive specialists are studying means of artificial insemination and breeding trends. The group is also working to secure micro-credit to help Altiplano residents build up and improve the quality of their flocks.

Laurel Tegland and Mike Moss
BYU students Laurel Tegland & Mike Moss check a fluorescent gel to monitor progress in their quest to identify a coat-color gene. Coat color is an economically important trait in llamas
BYU senior Mike Moss plans to travel with Dr. Kooyman this spring to the southern tip of Chile to draw blood from llamas. Moss has worked in Dr. Kooyman's lab for a year and a half, preparing to identify genetic markers and map desirable traits. He says the work is more valuable than anything he could learn in class because it teaches him what data actually means and what can be done with it.

Both Tegland and Moss point to Dr. Kooyman as an ideal mentor. "He doesn't mind if we occasionally mess things up in the lab," Tegland said. "Dr. Kooyman helps us to problem solve and really learn how the process works. He's as interested in having us learn the science as he is in his own research."

Professor Kooyman and Dr. Etel LatorreProfessor Kooyman and Dr. Etel Latorre with alpacas in Chile. Dr. Latorre is a veterinarian and world expert on camelid reproduction with Chile's equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Moss remembers the day that he and a number of other students in the lab finally found a gene of interest that hadn't yet been identified. Dr. Kooyman was away in South America, but he rejoiced with the students over the phone when they finally reached him thousands of miles away. Tegland visited South America four years ago and was amazed to see the benefits that scientific research could provide. "Our work is actually blessing people in South America," she said. "At first I just thought it was fun; but then I went there and saw how BYU's research can  actually improve lives. What we're doing with camelid genes may take ten years to have an impact, but eventually it will help."  Currently, Dr. Kooyman is funded in large part by BYU's Benson Institute; he is in the process of obtaining international funding. His goal is to look back after five to seven years of work and see "areas within each country in the Altiplano where we can demonstrate that people's income has increased,  where children's nutritional status has improved, diseases have declined, and the whole quality of life has been elevated," he said.

At that point, work can be turned over to individual governments and universities within each country—and more people can be helped.

"All of this is possible through the study of llamas and alpacas," Tegland said. "The payback from practical application of science is simply amazing."


 THE CAMELID TEAM

Alpacas are domesticated. Their body is roughly the size of a sheep’s but with a much longer neck. Alpaca fiber makes high-quality soft warm textiles. Llamas are the largest of the domesticated camelids and have a longer head than alpacas. Their fur is usually coarser and lighter than that of alpacas. Vicuñas are smaller than alpacas with finer features. Their warm gauzy wool is expensive as they are wild (protected) and can only be shorn once every three years. Guanacos are stately wild (protected) camelids about the size and shape of llamas. Guanaco fiber is equal to vicuña in warmth but not as soft.