Llamas: Nature's Cute & Fluffy Crusaders Against Bioterrorism

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. A freelance science and health journalist, Maggie lives in Minneapolis, brain dumps on Twitter, and writes quite often for mental_floss magazine.

Push away those vile stereotypes. Llamas are more than mere walking sweaters or Internet meme fodder. For one thing, they jump high enough to warrant a competitive circuit. They also make excellent guard animals for smaller beasts, such as alpaca or sheep. (No, really. Guard llamas. My aunt and uncle have one on their highly productive alpaca farm*.) Plus, they're also supposed to make a pretty good meat source. Llama meat was the first jerky; or charqui, as the Inca called it.

Back in 2006, scientists working with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory announced another area of llama expertise: Fighting in the War on Terror.

Llama blood may one day be able to help soldiers, scientists and city officials set up an early-warning system against the tiniest weapons of terror--biological agents like anthrax and smallpox. Authorities have long worried that, were these diseases to get loose, it would be difficult to know anything was wrong until innocent people started dying. Llama blood might provide a better detection method.

How? Antibodies, the tiny molecules that float around in the bloodstreams of people and almost all animals. Antibodies keep a sort of "memory" of all the diseases, allergens and other foreign invaders your body has come into contact with. If the same infiltrator shows up again, the antibodies can match it up with their stored records and immediately know how to fight it.
For a while now, scientists have used genetically altered antibodies to help ID and treat specific diseases. But these techniques always ran into a common problem: Antibodies were just too delicate to be of much use outside a lab or hospital setting. Enter the llama.

According to news stories about the research, llamas have extraordinarily tough and hardy antibodies, capable of sustaining exposure to temperatures as high as 200 degrees F. This discovery gave the researchers the idea to develop sensors, based on llama antibodies, that could be distributed to soldiers in a war, or around cities back home. Modified to be specifically on the lookout for likely-to-be-weaponized diseases, these sensors could pick up signs of a biochemical attack before victims started arriving at the hospital.

I wrote about this research in Be Amazing, back in early 2007. Since then, I haven't seen much more on whether or not these efforts have been successful. If the Internet Hivemind has any input or updates, I'd love to hear about them.

Michael Rogalski did not harm any llamas in the making of this illustration.

*Production on alpaca farm measured in bales of cuteness.


  1. #1. Loving llamas does not prove you are tolerant of hair. It’s actually physically impossible to not adore the llama, regardless of its hairiness.

  2. That image is great! I love the air tank on it’s back. It looks ready to take on the taliban.

  3. It’s not just llamas. All the creatures in the camel family have unusual antibodies that lack the “light chain” or “VL region”. There are many projects around that are investigating camelid antibodies because of their odd structure.
    http://www.chemie.uni-hamburg.de/bc/lehre/Review_II_Holliger_2005.pdf is a good starting point for what’s going on in the field.

    The other creatures with odd immune systems that might be exploited are the rays and sharks. Shark antibodies are also being studied extensively.

  4. Wonderful idea, but it seems to me that what we really need is creatures bred to be highly susceptible to likely-to-be-weaponized diseases, and thus able to alert us to the presence of these diseases by, um, dropping dead.

    (I vote we use ferrets for this because they really creep me out, what with their beady black eyes that keep looking at you, and you never really know what they’re thinking do you? Yes, definitely ferrets.)

  5. Re: Guard Llamas

    It’s true! Llamas are used to guard the sheep flock at Hampshire College. They’re quite effective at keeping the sheep out of the hands of the stoned student populace. They’re also more intelligent than the sheep. When my girlfriend worked on the farm there the sheep wouldn’t know when it was time for food but the llamas would, so they’d chase her and the buckets of chow around the enclosure.

  6. Not only that, but these antibodies are actually way smaller than ours, which makes them fitter for some diagnostic applications.

    Also, llamas are useful for credits and jokes, as Monty Python taught us.

  7. I don’t think the gas mask fits with the air tank. The mask looks like one of those carbon-filter types, doesn’t use an air tank.

    Also, NBC gear and a fur coat? That Llama is cooking under that outfit. Poor little llama.

  8. The illustration, engaging as it is, is obviously a rip-off MY top secret designs. The suit pictured is NOT biological or chemical protective gear. It is actually for the collection and conversion of greenhouse gasses to alternative fuels. The tank on the llama’s back is not an O2 tank, but a methane collector/concentrator. Someday soon I’ll rule the world and it will be a world run on llama methane!

  9. That is a great illustration, but I’m really surprised you guys are fooled by it, especially you, Greg.
    Unless I’m mistaken, llamas don’t have FEET. Cloven hooves, I believe. That’s two soldiers in a llama suit. A llama wouldn’t need the gas mask.
    Did I pass, Maggie?

  10. The magnitude of dorkiness in your posts makes me want to squeal with delight.

    About the illustration: while they evoke the humor of two guys pretending to be a llama in a tyvek suit during a chemical/biological weapons attack, the feet are sort of wrong – unless the llama also happens to be wearing combat boots. Wait, that must be what’s going on.

  11. Nice try Queen Overlord of the Hairless.

    Crafty, throwing us off your evil scheme with a token posting of Llama glama, (note the DOMESTIC llama), this is merely a horrific glimpse into how she envisions the future for those with hair – domesticated and bred to serve as guard animals around the Skin Palace of the Ruling Class, or as a source of *shudder* meat to keep the hairless alive. God, stop this horror.

    I see she is right back to her glorification of the hair free in her next cockroach post. The smooth, shiny, hairless cockroach of course.

    I am not lulled into submission by this trickery. Nay, I shall remain ever vigilant.

  12. I can’t believe people haven’t spotted the essential nature of the illustration – this will cure a major cause of global warming at a stroke. The tank on the animal’s back isn’t for oxygen, it’s for methane.

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