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Spit Happens: The Science Behind the 'Gobsmacked' Reaction



A llama that has been spat at by another llama and becomes gobsmacked
When ancient diplomacy goes awry: Even Pharaohs can’t escape a good llama spat!

In the complex social world of llamas, spitting is more than just a quirky behaviour—it's a nuanced form of communication integral to their social hierarchy. When a llama is spat at, the aftermath involves not only the physical act but also significant social implications, including what we've termed the 'gobsmacked' behaviour. This fascinating response, where llamas exhibit a temporary inability to eat and appear visibly stunned, is influenced by their highly developed sense of smell. Llamas react strongly to the odour of spit, which likely contains specific odours or chemical signals that play a critical role in their interactions. Such chemical cues might reinforce social hierarchies, signal submission, or act as a deterrent. Exploring these scent-based aspects of llama communication offers insights into the complex ways these animals interact with their environment and each other, deepening our understanding of their social dynamics.




An illustration of two gobsmacked llamas
An illustration of two gobsmacked llamas

The Gobsmacked Phenomenon

When llamas are spat at, they can exhibit a striking reaction where their mouth hangs open, a state we describe as 'gobsmacked.' This behaviour renders them temporarily unable to eat, leaving observers puzzled and intrigued. Initially, it may appear humorous or simply physiological, but it's deeply rooted in the social dynamics of the herd.



The Role of Scent in 'Gobsmacked' Behaviour

The spitting doesn't just transfer saliva; it can also include partially digested contents and a distinct odour that seems to carry chemical signals, possibly pheromones. This scent plays a crucial role in the 'gobsmacked' reaction. An interesting observation is that if a person's hand is near a llama that becomes gobsmacked, other llamas will refuse treats from that hand. This behaviour suggests that the scent of the spit may have a significant impact, serving as a strong social signal to other llamas about the status or condition of the spat-at individual.




Gobsmacked llama
When you hear the weekend plans and realize you’re not included... #GobsmackedLlama #LlamaDrama

Social Implications of Spitting


Spitting among llamas is a strategic behaviour used to assert dominance, establish social order, or express displeasure. When a llama is gobsmacked after being spat at, it's not just a physical reaction to the unpleasantness of the spit; it's a visible sign of submission or confusion within their social structure. This response can serve multiple functions:

  1. Submission: The 'gobsmacked' state in llamas serves as a compelling and involuntary signal of submission within their social hierarchy. When a llama is spat at and becomes gobsmacked, it's often seen hanging its head low and avoiding further confrontation, thereby acknowledging the dominance of the spitter. This physical and behavioral change is a clear submission gesture, reinforcing the established social order within the herd. It sends a signal to all observing llamas about the power dynamics at play, effectively maintaining the status quo without resorting to more aggressive forms of conflict.

  2. Social Pause: Experiencing the 'gobsmacked' state also creates a momentary pause in the usual activities of the spat-at llama. This pause is not merely a break in physical activity but a crucial period for psychological reassessment. It allows the spat-at llama to process the social cues and potentially reevaluate its own position within the herd's hierarchy. This can be essential for understanding the immediate social context—whether the spit was a warning, a reprimand, or part of a more significant social challenge. The disruption serves as a reflective quietude, forcing the llama to consider its next moves carefully in the social chessboard.

  3. Preventing Food Theft: In scenarios involving food, the 'gobsmacked' reaction has a direct impact on resource competition. When a llama becomes gobsmacked, its ability to eat or drink is momentarily impaired, lasting about 15-20 minutes. During this time, the spitter, or perhaps other llamas, can take advantage of the situation by consuming more food or accessing better grazing spots. This not only benefits the spitter by reducing competition but can also alter the feeding dynamics within the herd, potentially leading to shifts in who gets access to the best resources. This strategic use of spitting to control food resources highlights the cunning social intelligence of llamas.


These behaviours underscore a complex communication system among llamas, where spitting is not merely an act of aggression but a multifaceted tool for social interaction. The nuances of these interactions, including the unique role of the 'Head Girl' who does not warn before spitting, reflect a sophisticated understanding of social structure and individual roles within the herd. Our upcoming blog will delve deeper into the specific behaviours of the Head Girl, exploring why she may directly spit without prior warning and how this behaviour affects the herd dynamics.

Observations and Insights

By observing these interactions, we gain valuable insights into the intricate ways llamas communicate and maintain order. The gobsmacked behaviour underscores the complexity of their social lives, where every action and reaction has significance. Understanding this behaviour helps us appreciate the sophisticated social intelligence of llamas, revealing that their interactions are as structured and meaningful as those of more commonly studied social animals.


Wrapping Up

The 'gobsmacked' behaviour in llamas is a clear example of how animal behaviours, though sometimes puzzling at first glance, can be rich with social meaning. As we continue to study and interact with these fascinating creatures, we learn more about the depth of their social world, enhancing our ability to care for them effectively and ethically.


Exploring the social dynamics of llamas not only enriches our understanding but also highlights the importance of considering these dynamics in their care and management. As we delve deeper into the world of llamas, each observation and insight adds another piece to the puzzle of their complex social structures.


Next Blog

Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Spit: Llama Communication Pre-Spit

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