There are no wild alpacas. The closest living species are the wild Vicuña, also native to South America.
Alpacas form part of the group known as the South American Camelids together with Llamas, Guanacos and Vicuñas.
A male alpaca is called a ‘Macho’, a female a ‘Hembra’ and a baby is called a ‘cria’.
Alpacas are smaller than the Llama and together with the Vicuña are the most valuable fibre-bearing animals.
They are too small to be used as pack animals. Instead, they were bred exclusively for their fibre.
Alpacas are social herd animals and should always be kept with others of their kind.
They are gentle, elegant, inquisitive, intelligent and observant. As they are a prey animal, they are cautious and nervous if they feel threatened. They like having their own space and may not like an unfamiliar alpaca or human getting close, especially from behind.
The herd may attack smaller predators such as foxes with their front feet, and can spit and kick. Due to the soft pads on their feet, the impact of a kick is not as dangerous as those of hoofed animals, yet they still can give quite a bruise, and the pointed nails can inflict cuts.
Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable. “Spit” is somewhat euphemistic. While occasionally the projectile contains only air and a little saliva, they also commonly bring up acidic stomach contents (generally a green grassy mix) and project it onto its chosen target.
Spitting is mostly reserved for other alpacas, not for humans, but sometimes a human gets in the line of fire.
Some alpacas will spit when looked at, others will never spit — their personalities are all so individualised that there is no hard and fast rule about them in terms of social behaviour, although there is often a group leader.
To help alpacas control their internal parasites they have a communal dung pile, where they do not graze. Generally, males have much tidier, and fewer dung piles than females who tend to stand in a line and all go at once. One female approaches the dung pile and begins to urinate and/or defecate, and the rest of the herd often follows.
Alpacas generally make a humming sound. Hums are often comfort noises, letting the other alpacas know they are present and content.
However, humming can take on many inflections and meanings, from a high-pitched, almost desperate, squealing, “MMMM!” or frantic question, “mmMMM!” when a mother is separated from her offspring (called a “cria,”) to a questioning “Mmm?” when they are curious.
Alpacas also make other sounds as well as humming. In danger, they make a high-pitched, shrieking whine. To signal friendly and/or submissive behaviour, alpacas “cluck,” or “click” a sound possibly generated by suction on the soft palate, or possibly somehow in the nasal cavity. This is often accompanied by a flipping up of the tail over the back.
When males fight they also scream, a warbling bird-like cry, presumably intended to terrify the opponent. Fighting is to determine dominance, and therefore the right to mate the females in the herd, and it is triggered by testosterone.
This is why males are often kept in separate paddocks. Although alpacas may try to bite each other they only have a bottom row of teeth, so damage is usually minimal. When fighting they will often tangle others necks and attempt to push each other around, but they settle down after a week and agree to a winner and dominant male.
A male in the act of mating, or hoping for a chance to mate, “orgles”(sings). This orgling helps to put the female in the mood, and it is believed to also help her to ovulate after mating.
Females are “induced ovulators,” which means that the act of mating and the presence of semen causes them to ovulate. Frequently females conceive after just one breeding (which can last anywhere from 5 minutes to well over an hour).
A male is usually ready to mate for the first time between one and three years of age. A female alpaca may fully mature (physically and mentally) between 12-24 months.
Pregnancies last between 11 and 11.5 months +/- two weeks and usually result in a single cria. Twins are very rare.
After a female gives birth, she is generally receptive to breeding again after approximately two weeks.
Crias may be weaned through human intervention at approximately 6 months, however, many breeders prefer to allow the female to decide when to wean her offspring.
It is believed that alpacas generally live for up to 20 years and occasionally longer. Conditions and nutrition are better in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Europe than in South America, so animals live longer and are healthier.
Alpaca fleece is fibre, similar to sheep’s wool in some respects, but lighter in weight, silkier to the touch, warmer, not prickly, and bears minimal lanolin which makes it nearly hypoallergenic. It is also soft and luxurious.
White is the predominant color of alpacas, because of selective breeding. However, alpacas come in many shades from a true-blue black through brown-black, browns, fawns, white, silver-greys, and rose-greys as well. There is now a growing demand for the natural colours in the high end fashion industry.
There are two types of alpaca: Huacaya (which produce a dense, soft, crimpy sheep-like fibre), and the mop-like Suri (with silky pencil-like locks, resembling dread-locks but not actually matted fibers). Suris are prized for their longer and silkier fibers, and estimated to make up between 19-20% of the Alpaca population.
The demand for this luxurious fibre is increasing dramatically as the clothing industry realises the full potential of it. Australia who are approximately 10 years ahead of us here in the UK have in excess of 100,000 alpacas and they can not meet the demand for the fleeces.
Believe me, alpacas are here to stay and they will become an integral and highly prized part of the UK clothing industry.