Meet the alpaca

I had an exciting weekend – I went with some friends to visit an ALPACA FARM!!!!

Do you know how cute alpacas are? (Spoiler: they’re pretty cute).

And alpacas are sooooo soft. They almost didn’t feel real.

Beyond letting us meet alpacas, the farm gave us some interesting facts about these animals that I want to share with you (along with some of my own research).

First off, alpacas (Lama pacos or Vicugna pacos) are part of the Camelidae family. This family contains, you guessed it, camels! The South American branch of Camelidae includes llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and guanacos.

There are 2 types of alpacas: huacaya and suri. Most alpacas (around 90%) are huacayas; they have a wooly appearance because their hair grows perpendicular to the skin. In contrast, the much rarer suri breed has straight hair that hangs down toward the ground. In addition, suri fiber is finer and less dense than huacaya fiber, so they are less able to handle severe weather.

Huacaya on the left, suri on the right. Photo by Aaron Logan. Retrieved from Flickr on 11-03-2022.

Old species

Alpacas have been around for a long, long time. We think that they were domesticated from the wild vicuña more than 6,000 years ago in the Andes. Alpacas would have represented a critical source of food, fuel, and hides for the people living in this region. Perhaps most importantly, alpaca fiber would have provided great protection from the harsh Andean environment.

Alpaca or Llama?

This is a common and understandable question; after all, the two species look very similar! In addition, it was originally thought in the 18th and 19th centuries that alpacas were descended from llamas. It also doesn’t help matters that all 4 South American camelids (alpacas, llamas, vicuñas, and guanacos) can interbreed and create viable offspring. But DNA analysis eventually showed that alpacas are descended from vicuña while llamas are more closely related to the guanaco.

This alpaca had a ‘bobble-head’ haircut. Photo by me.

An easy way to visually tell an alpaca from a llama is to look compare their size. Llamas are about twice the size of alpacas, coming in at 250 – 400 pounds compared to an alpaca’s 120 – 200 pounds. In addition, alpacas are rounder than llamas and tend to hold their tail close to their body (llamas tend to hold their tail erect). Alpacas also have smaller ears and blunter faces.

Physical differences between alpacas and llamas result in differences in their use. While alpacas are maintained primarily for their fleece, the larger llama is more likely to be used for packing or guarding livestock herds (like sheep or alpacas).

Lacking teeth

Well, that’s not entirely true. While they do have bottom teeth, alpacas don’t have top, front teeth. Instead, alpacas have a dental pad on the top of their mouths. To eat, alpacas simply grind grass against their dental pad with their bottom incisors.

Alpacas also have molars and canine teeth. The canines play a special role in adult male fights. Their sharp canines grow into 1.2-inch long fangs that can be used to fight other males.

As long as we’re talking about teeth, I should mention that alpacas would probably be better lawnmowers than goats. Alpacas have short tongues, unlike goats and sheep. This means that, unlike goats and sheep, they won’t rip plants out of the ground and will instead only nibble the tops.

Spitting mad

You may have heard about alpacas spitting, and it’s true! But, don’t worry: alpacas don’t usually spit at humans (only if they’re frightened or abused). Spitting is typically reserved for other alpacas as a way to register a complaint. For instance, an alpaca might spit at another alpaca getting too close to its food, or during a squabble between males. Fun fact: this ‘spit’ isn’t really spit. Instead, it’s mostly air and some stomach acid mixed with the last thing the alpaca ate.

Alpacas also communicate through body expressions (neck posturing, ear and tail positioning, head tilting) and humming. When alarmed, they will emit a staccato alarm call.

But my favorite alpaca vocalization is the orgle. Breeding males emit an orgle to serenade a female. Orgles kinda sound like a car that won’t start. (You can judge for yourself here, but this video is of 2 alpacas having sex, so be warned!). For some female alpacas, male orgling induces ovulation. As induced ovulators, female alpacas don’t have a regular ovulation cycle like humans do. Instead, the act of mating (and apparently the orgle) triggers a female to ovulate.

11.5 months after orgling and mating, the female alpaca will give birth to a single baby, called a ‘cria.’ This is a good thing, since crias mean more alpacas which means more alpaca fur to make soft, warm clothes for us.


Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

Alpaca Owner’s Association Inc.


National Zoo & Aquarium Canberra

National Geographic

Live Science

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