vicuña vĭko͞oˈnyə, vĭkyo͞oˈnə [key], wild South American hoofed mammal, Vicugna vicugna, the smallest member of the camel family. It is 30 in. (75 cm) high at the shoulder, with a long, slender neck and pale, fawn coloring. Vicuñas live in herds on high plateaus of the Andes, at altitudes of 14,000 to 18,000 ft (4,300–5,500 m); they feed on grasses and other vegetation.

Their fleece is exceptionally soft and silky, and in the time of the Incas was reserved for royal robes. The vicuña has never been successfully domesticated; wild herds were rounded up for shearing. Hunted to the verge of extinction for its wool and flesh, it is now protected and has recovered. Today wool is harvested from animals in the wild and others confined to ranches or enclosed ranges.

The vicuña is classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Camelidae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology