- Common Name:
- Scientific Name:
- Vicugna pacos
- Average Life Span In Captivity:
- 20 years
- 47 to 85 inches long
- 100 to 175 pounds
What is an alpaca?
Alpacas are members of the camel family, domesticated by the people of the Peruvian Andes 6,000 years ago for food, fuel, and fiber. They are ungulates, a group of large hooved mammals that also include sheep and giraffes, with large bodies and legs, long necks, small heads, and medium-length fluffy tails. Although they are often confused with their cousin, the llama, alpacas have shorter ears and blunter, but equally adorable, faces.
Alpacas are prized all over the world for their fleecy coats, which are shorn to make warm, soft, lightweight textiles. They boast a variety of 22 coat colors, including white, black, beige, and many shades of brown and gray. Though they are farmed in many places including Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, their native lands are the mountains of the Andes, from Bolivia and Colombia down to Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina.
There are two domesticated breeds of alpaca: The huacaya, whose fleece is crimped, compact, and soft, makes up 90 percent of the alpaca population. Suri alpacas, whose coats have a corkscrew-like appearance with longer fibers and a silkier texture, account for the rest of the population. They are typically sheared once a year in the spring or early summer before it gets too hot.
Male and female alpacas are very similar in appearance. Males are somewhat larger and have more prominent canine and incisor teeth called fighting teeth or fangs. These teeth—which can be over an inch long—are uncommon but not unheard of in herbivores.
Diet and behavior
Alpacas have sharp nails, but their feet are padded and so soft they don’t displace the grass they’re standing on. They are strict grazers, eating from the mountains and valleys of the Andes. They’re gentle, docile animals, which are kept in herds and sometimes also kept as companion animals or pets, though alpacas are so social that they only thrive if they live with at least one other alpaca.
They have a variety of vocalizations, some of which have multiple meanings. Alpacas hum in a high tone to indicate a question, while humming in deeper tone, called a “status hum,” can signal anything from contentment to tension or pain. A soft clucking or clicking sound or a snort can mean mild aggression. One unambiguous alpaca sound is the shrill, shrieking whistle that the animals use as an alarm call.
Alpaca males become sexually mature at two and a half years old. Females reach maturity between 10 and 12 months but are not usually bred until they are two years old and half their adult body weight. That’s because smaller females tend to have difficult births.
In their native environment of the Andes they breed seasonally. Outside of that range they can breed year-round. A male will pursue a female until she signals she’s receptive by sitting down with her legs tucked under her in what’s called cush or kush position.
Alpaca females don’t have consistent reproductive cycles with times of greater fertility—they only ovulate after having mated, at which point a female will actively reject male advances, a possible indicator of pregnancy.
Gestation lasts an average of 342 days but can last just over a year. Yet pregnancy isn’t always obvious in alpacas, even toward the end. Females give birth to one baby, called a cria, who will walk shortly afterward. Most crias—90 percent—are born in the daytime, and they weigh about 12 to 15 pounds. They’re weaned at about six months and are about a hundred pounds by their first birthday.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has not evaluated alpacas, which are all domesticated and have been for 6,000 years. During the 16th century Spanish invasion of South America, the alpaca population was cut down by 90 percent. Their closest living wild relative is the vicuña, the smallest member of the camel family native to western and central South America. Alpacas were domesticated from vicunas, while llamas were domesticated from another camel relative, the guanaco.
Today’s alpaca population is threatened by climate change, which has changed weather patterns in the Andean region where these animals graze. The once-verdant pastures at their 13,000-foot elevations are drying out and unpredictable changes in temperatures have made them vulnerable to illness.(Learn about the high-altitude quest to save the alpaca.)
Another threat to the species is that alpacas can crossbreed with llamas and vicuña. A 2020 study in the Journal of Arid Environments found that interbreeding among species of the camel families of South America is diluting the alpacas’ ancestral genetics.
Where they have been farmed, however, they seem to have thrived. It wasn’t until 1984 that alpacas were imported from the Andes to the U.S., which now has a population of more than 250,000. The world alpaca population is almost four million, with 96 percent of them found in Peru and Bolivia.
Did you know?
— Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Alpacas demonstrate annoyance with another alpaca by spitting the last thing they ate at the offender.
— National Zoo & Aquarium Canberra
Mating male alpacas make a noise called “orgling,” which sounds a bit like a car that won’t start. The sound induces ovulation in some female alpacas.
— American Journal of Biomedical Science and Research