Alpaca

Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Camelidae
Genus and Species: Lama pacos
  • A close-up of a beige alpaca's face
  • An alpaca with off-white fur
  • Two beige and white alpacas with sheered fur walking in the grass
  • A close-up of a beige alpaca's face
  • The profile of an alpaca with white fur
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Alpaca

A small relative of the camel originally native to South America, alpacas were domesticated by Andean people for their wool.

Physical Description

The alpaca has a slender body and neck, a small head and big, pointed ears. The alpaca's feet are soft and padded and leave even the most delicate grasses and terrain undamaged as it grazes. Huacaya alpacas occur in a variety of colors.

In adult males the upper and lower incisors and the lower canines develop into fighting teeth or fangs that can be more than 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) long. In females these teeth do not develop as much as in males. Other than the difference in tooth morphology, sexual dimorphism in alpacas is minor.

The two types of alpacas are huacaya and suri. Both have fleece that is soft and virtually free of guard hair. Ninety-five percent of alpacas are huacaya, whose crimpy fiber grows perpendicular to the skin and gives them a wooly appearance. The Suri has straight fiber that is often finer than that of the huacaya; its fiber curls toward the ground and hangs down in "dreadlocks." However because of their finer, less dense coat, the Suri is not quite as adept at withstanding severe weather. The Suri is rarer with only about 5,000 registered in the United States. The Smithsonian's National Zoo exhibits huacaya alpaca.

As in ancient days, alpacas are important to Andean herders, providing luxury fiber and meat. Their compact size contributes to easy management and to desirability as a companion animal. Alpacas easily learn to lead, jump in and out of vehicles, cush (sit down), and obey other simple commands taught to all domestic members of the camelid family. They are popular show animals and can be seen at fairs and fiber fests throughout North America. Alpacas are shorn for their valuable fleeces. The males produce approximately eight pounds and the females about five pounds of easily marketable fiber from their coats per year. No other animal that produces fiber for textile use has such an enormous variety of natural colors. The fiber comes in approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends. The black coats are usually the heaviest. It has a cellular structure similar to hair and is more resilient and much stronger than Merino sheep wool. It is highly sought after in Britain, Europe, and Japan. The cria fiber, which is fiber from a baby alpaca, is extra fine and lustrous and commands a higher selling price. Their fiber quality is only slightly lower than the vicuna.

Size

Alpacas are the smallest of the domesticated camelid species. Huacaya alpaca have a birth weight of between 10 and 17 pounds (4.5t o 7.7 kg) and grow to an adult weight of between 100 and 190 pounds (45.3 to 86.1kg). Adults stand 32 to 39 inches (81.2 to 99cm) at the shoulder, they have long legs and necks and straight ears.

Native Habitat

Alpacas are one of the domesticated members of the camel family, which also includes llamas, guanacos, and vicunas from South America, and the Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa. 

Communication

Alpacas express themselves with a soft hum, other vocalizations and body language, such as neck posturing, ear and tail positioning, and head tilt. They have excellent eyesight and hearing, and will alert the herd and their human keepers of perceived danger with a staccato alarm call. Alpacas rarely spit at people unless frightened or abused, but will use this form of communication with each other to register a complaint.

Food/Eating Habits

Alpacas are strict grazers and in their native South America, domesticated herds feed on grasses from the mountainsides and valleys of the Andes. Camelid species are adapted to living in areas of sparse vegetation, and alpacas require much less food than most animals their size. In human care, alpaca usually feed on a combination of fresh grass and low protein hay.

The huacaya alpacas at the Zoo are fed three flakes of mixed grass hay per day to share between the three of them and herbivore feed twice a day.

Social Structure

Alpacas are social herd animals, and their only defense is flight. As they feel safest in numbers and have such strong herding instincts, it is best not to have just one alpaca. Alpacas need the companionship of at least one other alpaca to thrive.

Reproduction and Development

Male alpacas reach sexual maturity at about two and a half years of age. Females are first bred at 16 to 20 months of age. Alpacas are induced ovulators, meaning it takes the physical act of breeding to cause ovulation to occur, making artificial insemination unfeasible. However, this also means that they can breed any time of the year.

Responsible breeders consider the weather and pasture conditions very carefully when planning their birthing schedules. An average gestation of 335 days (or about 11.5 months) produces a single baby (cria), which is usually delivered from a standing position during daylight hours. Alpacas are burdened with the fact that their crias are unusually large for the size of the mother.

Alpaca mothers average between 120 and 140 pounds (54.4 to 63.5 kilograms) often give birth to babies weighing 16 to 22 pounds (7.2 to 10 kilograms). Not only are the babies big, they grow rapidly, so mothers need plenty of good nutrition in order to transfer enough to a growing cria that will usually weigh more than 100 pounds by the time it is a yearling. Crias are generally weaned at around six months of age.

The Zoo’s two male alpacas are named Orion and Cirrus. All alpacas grow a thick wool coat that helps keep them warm in their native mountain habitat. Orion’s coat is beige and Cirrus’ coat is white.

Once a year, typically in April, Kids’ Farm keepers will sheer the alpacas as a special animal demonstration.