Alpaca Facts

Scientific Name: Vicugna pacos

Alpaca close-up
Alpacas are smaller than llamas and have shorter muzzles.

Paul Dickmann / Getty Images

The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is the smallest species of camel. Alpacas are closely related to llamas, but they are smaller and have shorter muzzles. While llamas are raised for meat and fur and are used as pack animals, alpacas are kept for their silky, hypoallergenic fleece.

Fast Facts: Alpaca

  • Scientific Name: Vicugna pacos
  • Common Name: Alpaca
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 32-39 inches
  • Weight: 106-185 pounds
  • Lifespan: 15-20 years
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: Worldwide, except Antarctica
  • Population: 3.7 million
  • Conservation Status: Not Evaluated (domesticated)

Description

There are two alpaca breeds. They are the same in terms of height and weight, but the Huacaya appears bulky because of its dense, curly, sponge-like fiber, while the Suri has longer, silkier fiber that hangs in locks. Breeders estimate less than 10% of alpacas are Suris.

Both breeds come in a wide array of colors and coat patterns. On average, adult alpacas range from 32 to 39 inches in height at the shoulders and weigh between 106 and 185 pounds. Males tend to be about 10 pounds heavier than females. Alpacas are the smallest members of the camelid family. Llamas stand nearly 4 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 350 pounds, while camels may reach 6.5 feet at the shoulder and weigh over 1,300 pounds.

Alpacas have shorter muzzles and ears than llamas. Mature male alpacas and llamas have fighting teeth. A few females develop these additional teeth, too.

Llamas in Peru
Llamas in Machu Pichu, Peru. itakayuki / Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

Thousands of years ago in Peru, vicuñas were domesticated to produce alpacas. Alpacas can breed with llamas, which were domesticated from guanacos. Modern alpacas carry mitochondrial DNA from both vicuñas and guanacos.

When the Spanish conquistadors invaded the Andes in 1532, 98% of the alpaca population died from disease or was destroyed. Up to the 19th century, alpacas lived almost exclusively in Peru. Today, there are about 3.7 million alpacas. They are found everywhere in the world, except Antarctica. Alpacas are adapted to live at high altitudes with temperate conditions, but they readily adapt to a wide range of habitats.

Diet

Alpacas are herbivores that graze on grass, hay, and silage. Ranchers sometimes supplement their diet with grain. Like other camelids, alpacas have three-chambered stomachs and chew cub. However, they are not ruminants.

group of white alpacas
A group of white alpacas on a farm in Scotland. Gannet77 / Getty Images

Behavior

Alpacas are social herd animals. A typical group consists of an alpha male, one or more females, and their offspring. Although alpacas can be aggressive, they are extremely intelligent, easily trained, and able to form strong bonds with humans.

Lamoids, including alpacas, communicate via body language and vocalization. Sounds include humming, snorting, grumbling, screaming, screeching, clucking, and snorting. Alpacas can spit when stressed or to indicate lack of interest in a mate. Technically, the "spit" consists of stomach contents rather than saliva. Alpacas urinate and defecate in a communal dung pile. This behavior makes it possible to house train an alpaca.

Reproduction and Offspring

While alpacas can breed any time of the year, most ranchers choose spring or autumn. Females are induced ovulators, which means mating and semen cause them to ovulate. For breeding, a male and female may be housed in a pen together or one male may be placed in a paddock with several females.

Gestation lasts 11.5 months, resulting in a single offspring, which is called a cria. Rarely, twins may be born. A newborn cria weighs between 15 and 19 pounds. Crias may be weaned when they are six months old and weigh about 60 pounds. Although females are receptive to breeding within a couple of weeks of giving birth, overbreeding can lead to uterine infections and other health problems. Most ranchers only breed alpacas once a year. Females may be bred when they are at least 18 months old and have reached two-thirds of their mature weight. Males may be allowed to breed when they are two to three years of age. The average alpaca lifespan is 15 to 20 years. The longest-lived alpaca reached 27 years of age.

Alpaca cria
An alpaca cria is a smaller version of its parents.  PHOTO 24 / Getty Images

Conservation Status

Because they are domesticated animals, alpacas do not have a conservation status. The species is abundant and has grown in popularity as demand for alpaca fiber has increased.

Alpacas and Humans

Alpacas are kept as pets or for their fleece. The fleece is silky, flame-resistant, and lanolin-free. Usually, alpacas are sheared once a year in the spring, yielding between five and ten pounds of fleece per animal. Although they are not routinely killed for meat, alpaca meat is palatable and high in protein.

Sources

  • Chen, B.X.; Yuen, Z.X. & Pan, G.W. "Semen-induced ovulation in the bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus)." J. Reprod. Fertil. 74 (2): 335–339, 1985.
  • Salvá, Bettit K.; Zumalacárregui, José M.; Figueira, Ana C.; Osorio, María T.; Mateo, Javier. "Nutrient composition and technological quality of meat from alpacas reared in Peru." Meat Science. 82 (4): 450–455, 2009. doi:10.1016/j.meatsci.2009.02.015
  • Valbonesi, A.; Cristofanelli, S.; Pierdominici, F.; Gonzales, M.; Antonini, M. "Comparison of Fiber and Cuticular Attributes of Alpaca and Llama Fleeces." Textile Research Journal. 80 (4): 344–353 2010. doi:10.1177/0040517509337634
  • Wheeler, Jane C. "South American camelids – past, present and future." Journal of Camelid Science. 5: 13, 2012.