Alpaca characteristics, habitat, reproduction, behavior

Robert Johnston
Alpaca characteristics, habitat, reproduction, behavior

The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a South American camelid belonging to the Camelidae family. Through genetic analysis it has been possible to verify that the vicuña is the wild ancestor of the alpaca. Likewise, studies indicate that this species was domesticated 6000 years ago in the Peruvian Andes..

The most notable feature of this mammal is its fiber, which covers the entire body. This wool is soft, highly resistant, hypoallergenic and high performance. In addition, experts point out that it can be presented in approximately 22 different natural tones, including black and white..

Alpaca. Source: BERNARDO VALENTIN [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

Due to its properties and characteristics, its fiber is highly valued in the national and international market. This makes the Vicugna pacos has a relevant economic importance for the countries in which it lives, especially for Peru, where the largest population is found.

The alpaca is the smallest species of camelids. Thus, its weight is between 45 and 77 kilograms and it measures 1.2 to 2.23 meters long. As for the body, it lacks a hump and is slim, although it looks voluptuous due to the wool that covers it..

The alpaca lives in humid forests, grasslands and savannas in Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina.

Article index

  • 1 Characteristics of the alpaca
    • 1.1 - Body
    • 1.2 - Size
    • 1.3 - Skull
    • 1.4 - The fiber
  • 2 Communication
    • 2.1 Vocalizations
    • 2.2 Spit
  • 3 Hybridization
  • 4 Taxonomy and subspecies
    • 4.1 - Taxonomy
    • 4.2 - Races
  • 5 Habitat and distribution
    • 5.1 Peru and Ecuador
    • 5.2 Habitat
  • 6 Conservation status
    • 6.1 Current situation of the Suri breed
    • 6.2 Actions
  • 7 Playback
    • 7.1 The breeding
  • 8 Food
    • 8.1 Digestive process
  • 9 Behavior
  • 10 References 

Characteristics of the alpaca

Source: Christophe Meneboeuf [CC BY-SA (]

- Body

The body of the alpaca has no hump and is slim. This one looks fluffy by the long wool that covers it. It has a small head and a long neck. As for the ears, they are pointed and elongated. His lips are thick and his eyes are big.

In relation to the teeth, the canines and incisor of the male, known as fighting teeth, are more developed than those of the female. This is the only characteristic that differentiates them, since both sexes are physically very similar..

- Size

The Vicugna pacos it is the smallest species of the Camelidae family. Its weight is between 45 and 77 kilograms and the height at the withers is approximately 92 centimeters. Body length is 1.2-2.25 meters.

- Skull

The alpaca skull has characteristics that differentiate it from other ruminants, such as cattle, goats and sheep. Some of these peculiarities is the lack of horns and the existence of a complete eye orbit..

As for the incisor bone, it has a socket for the only incisor tooth it has in the upper dental arch. The maxillary bone has a cavity that the canine occupies. These characteristics are not present in other ruminants, which have a dental ridge on the upper jaw..

In the area that limits the maxillary, nasal and frontal bones it has a space or foramen, which allows communication between the ocular and nasal cavity. In relation to the frontal sinuses, they have diverticula that separate it into two areas: lateral sinus and medial frontal sinus..

- The fiber

Source: Brian0918 [Public domain]

The alpaca is not used as a pack animal, like the llama. The Vicugna pacos It is an animal that produces fiber, which, thanks to its excellent characteristics and properties, are used in the manufacture of excellent quality garments.


There are 22 different natural shades, which, when mixed together, can produce a wide variety of natural colors. These range from white, creams, browns, grays, silver to an intense and shiny jet black..

This diversity is a great advantage over the other natural fibers. However, the white one is the most commercial is the white one. This is because it is easier to dye..

Hygroscopic properties

The fiber of the alpaca absorbs moisture, allowing the skin to be cool in the summer and during the winter, it helps to conserve heat.

Thermal properties

The microscopic air pockets that make up the fiber are an efficient thermal insulator and lighten the weight. In this way, the garments that are made with this thread are lightweight and contribute to maintaining body temperature, regardless of the external environment conditions..


The fiber is covered with scales, however, its edges are few protrusions reduce friction. This makes its texture smooth.


The diameter ranges from 18 to 33 microns, which varies depending on the part of the body where the fiber is located. There are several factors that influence the thickness, among which are the diet, the age of the animal, the purity of the breed and the area of ​​the body.

Thus, the diameter increases as the nickel silver ages. Also, the finest fleece comes from the dorsal area, the flanks or the sides. The thickest are found on the belly, head, legs and chest.


The length of the fiber is associated with the sex, race and age of the Vicugna pacos. The young have the longest threads, while as the animal ages, the length decreases.

Regarding the breed, the Suri produces a fiber of approximately 15.05 centimeters, while in the Huacaya breed the average length is 14.67 centimeters. In addition, in the female it usually measures 12.5 to 17.2 centimeters and in the male it is 13.10 to 17 centimeters.


The strand of the alpaca is up to three times stronger than that of the sheep. In addition, it has a high tensile strength. Thanks to this, it does not form circular agglomerations, which would make it unsuitable for industrial use..


The fiber of this species, unlike that produced by sheep, contains very little lanolin. This makes it less itchy than other fibers..


The yield per fleece is high, between 87 and 95%, compared to that of sheep which is 43 to 76%. This wool does not fray or break, contributing to its industrialization.

Fleece weight

Regarding production, it is influenced by the sex, race and age of the alpaca. The first shearing occurs around 10 months. At that age, the fleece weighs 1.15 kilograms, a value that increases as the animal becomes an adult..

Thus, at two years it weighs 1.61 kilograms and at 4 years it reaches 2 kilograms. From the age of 6, the weight of the fleece begins to decrease.



The alpaca produces a wide range of sounds. The most common is buzzing, which the animal emits in various circumstances, such as when it feels distressed..

When they want to warn the rest of the group of danger, they can vocalize a snort or a scream. This can get so loud that it gets deafening.

Another vocalization is the screech, which is probably intended to terrify the adversary. It is used mainly by the male, during fights with other males for dominance of the group.


Only some alpacas usually spit, but all have the ability to do so. Generally, the liquid that is expelled contains acids from the stomach, but sometimes it is just air with a little saliva. Usually before doing so, they blow air strongly and lift their heads.

This behavior can be carried out for various reasons. For example, a female might do it when she doesn't want a male to seek her out to mate. Also, both sexes spit to keep other alpacas away from their food..


All South American camelids can interbreed with each other, producing fertile offspring. However, normally the union between domestic and wild species does not occur naturally in their habitat..

The product of the cross between an alpaca and a llama is a huarizo, which presents intermediate physical characteristics of both parents. When a vicugna and an alpaca unite, it gives rise to a pacovicuña, which shows a lot of resemblance to the vicugna.

This hybrid has received considerable attention, as the fiber of the animal is of high quality.

Taxonomy and subspecies

Source: Radomil talk [CC BY-SA (]

The relationship between the alpaca and the other South American camelids has been controversial. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the scientific name was assigned to it, it was thought that it was a descendant of the guanaco (Lama guanicoe). Because of this she was named Lama pacos.

However, in the 21st century, the analysis carried out on the molecular markers mtDA and microsatellites, showed that the alpaca and the vicuña are closely related. Thus, the experts established a new reclassification as Vicugna pacos.

- Taxonomy

-Animal Kingdom.

-Subkingdom: Bilateria.

-Phylum: Chordate.

-Subfilum: Vertebrate.

-Infrafilum: Gnathostomata.

-Superclass: Tetrapoda.

-Class: Mammal.

- Subclass: Theria.

-Infraclass: Eutheria.

-Order: Artiodactyla.

-Family: Camelidae.

-Genus: Vicugna.

-Species: Vicugna pacos.

- Breeds

Currently there are 2 breeds of alpaca, which differ mainly by the external characteristics of their fiber.


The appearance of this breed is voluminous and rounded. Its fiber has the peculiarity of growing perpendicular to the body. The fluffy look is due to the density, luster, softness and curls it forms. The wicks are shorter and duller than those of the Suri breed.

Worldwide, its population is higher than that of the Suri. According to estimates, it represents 90% of all alpacas. Thus, in Bolivia, 95% of these mammals are of this breed, and in Peru they constitute 90% of the population..

This is due to the fact that this species has greater resistance to altitude and to the climatic conditions of those countries..


The fiber of the Suri breed has a limp appearance, since its growth is parallel to the body, in the direction of the ground. Thus, long and independent curls are formed throughout the body, similar to fringes. These are shiny and silky in appearance, because the fleece is fine, dense, soft and has luster.

The population of the Suri is lower than that of the Huacaya. Taking statistics into account, this breed represents about 4% of the total species. In Peru it constitutes 10% of the alpacas that inhabit that Andean country.

In this video you can see the difference between huacayos and suris:

Habitat and distribution

Previously, the alpaca was distributed in the central and southern region of the South American Andes, ranging from Peru to Argentina. The height of these regions was up to 4800 meters.

However, in areas close to sea level, remains of Vicugna pacos, which could indicate that they had a greater dispersion. The reduction of habitat may be associated with the establishment in the area of ​​the Spanish conquerors and with the cattle that they introduced.

The ecological impact suffered by the Andean region, product of the European invasion of the 16th century, caused the llama and the alpaca to be in danger of extinction.

Currently, the alpaca has a reduced distribution. It is located in the Andean ecosystems of South America, at an approximate height of 5,000 meters above sea level. Thus, it lives in the Andes of Peru, west of Bolivia, the eastern end of Chile, north of Argentina and in Ecuador.

In 1980 the introduction of the alpaca to other countries began, so it is present in New Zealand, Austria, the United States and the Netherlands. However, 99% of animals of this species live in South America.

Source: Notnoisy [CC BY (]

Peru and Ecuador

More than 70% of this species lives in Peru, where it is distributed mainly in the department of Puno (47%). Other regions where the alpaca lives are Cuzco (14.1%), Arequipa (6.3%), Huancavelica (6.3%), Ayacucho (5.9%), Apurimac (5%), Moquegua (3.4 %) and in the department of Pasco (2.9%).

In relation to Ecuador, the provinces with the highest number of populations are Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.


The alpaca lives in the Andean highlands, preferably in areas close to humid zones. As for the climate, at night it can reach temperatures below 0 ° C and during the day the average is 16 ° C.

In these semi-arid regions, with an annual rainfall between 400 and 700 mm, grasses predominate. Its habitat includes the foothills of the high mountains, in a range of 3,500 to 5,000 meters above sea level..

Thus, this animal lives in savannas, forests and grasslands, where the temperature could change suddenly and the terrain could be covered with snow for several months..

State of conservation

Source: Brian0918 [Public domain]

After the serious threat of extinction that the alpaca had during the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the populations of this mammal recovered. One of the main reasons for this is that this animal is raised for its wool, which is highly valued in national and international markets..

Today, IUCN believes that the Vicugna pacos they are not in danger of extinction, but it is still relegated to the higher regions of the Andes. However, in the Red Book of Mammals of Ecuador it is categorized as a species of least concern of becoming extinct..

The vast majority of alpacas raised in South America are under the control of traditional grazing. In this practice, most of the time, they are close to the flames, and they can cross each other..

Hybridization between these two species could pose a threat to the alpaca, since its genetic composition could be compromised.

Long ago, the meat of this mammal was considered a luxury product. At present, the new laws establish that the commercialization of this meat product is illegal.

Current situation of the Suri breed

The reality of the populations of the Suri race reflects that those of white color are much more abundant than that of the other 22 natural tones.

This situation reflects the requirement of the national and international textile industry, which has a preference for white fiber, as a raw material to be dyed and subsequently processed industrially..

Taking into account the need to conserve biological diversity in the Andean region, the “bleaching” of the Suri breed affects its future, especially that of the colored species..


This is why, with the intention of preventing the extinction of the colored Suri alpacas, the Association of Andean Camelidae Breeders - Illa, with the support of some United Nations programs, is executing the project "Evaluation, Recovery and Conservation Germplasm of the Alpaca Raza Suri Color ".

This has been developing in Peru, in the district of Nuñoa, in the department of Puno. The purpose of the project is the recovery of the small population of the Suri breed of natural colors.

Among the actions is the establishment of Genetic Conservation centers, in charge of planning various reproduction and repopulation strategies that allow the sustainable use of this breed of alpaca..


The female is reproductively mature between 12 and 15 months, while the male is around 30 to 36 months. Vicugna pacos is a polygamous species, the dominant males can form a harem, made up of a group of 5 to 10 females in heat.

The ovulation of the female is an induced process, which is activated during the act of copulation and by the action of semen. According to experts, semen causes a chemical effect that triggers a pre-ovulatory surge of luteinizing hormone.

As for mating, it can occur throughout the year. If the female in heat allows copulation, the male positions himself on it, inserting his penis into the vagina. During this act, the male emits a very particular sound, known as "orging".

When the female is in the gestation stage, she rejects any attempt by a male to mate with her. The delivery occurs between 242 and 345 days, generally being born a single calf, which weighs between 6 and 7 kilograms. The female could mate around 10 days after giving birth.

The brood

During delivery, the male of this species remains distant. As for the female, she watches the young very closely, but only approaches when he stands up..

Then the mother offers to breastfeed him, so he can get colostrum, rich in nutrients and antibodies. In the event that the calf has trouble finding the udder, the female helps him by changing her posture..

If a mother observes a stranger approaching her calf, she spits it out or throws herself on it. Weaning of the young occurs when the youngster is around 6 months old.


The alpaca is a herbivorous animal, whose diet includes tree leaves, bark, hay and grasses. He also eats grass, among which are Festuca nardifolia, Deschampsia caespitosa, Festuca orthophylla Y Agrostis tolucensis. In addition, it usually feeds on the woody shrub Parastrephia lucida.

According to research, grasses are the most abundant in the diet of this mammal, followed by herbaceous plants and grasses. As for shrubs and legumes, they are not a main part of their diet, due to their scarce availability in the Andean plain..

Grass is an excellent source of protein. However, when the seasons change, the grass can gain or lose nutrients. For example, during the spring, grass contains around 20% protein, while in the summer season it contains only 6%..

Digestive process

The foods that the alpaca consumes have two types of carbohydrates, the complex ones and the easily available ones. As for the complexes, contained in the grass, they have cellulose. Those found in grains, such as corn and oats, are easily digested.

Cellulose molecules are difficult to absorb, so the digestive system of this mammal is adapted to process them. When they cut the grass, they chew it several times and mix it with their saliva. Then, they swallow it, to continue the digestive process.

The alpaca is a pseudo ruminant, so its stomach has three compartments, instead of the four that ruminants have. The first section is the largest and is where the fermentation of the ingested plant material takes place..

Then it goes to the second compartment, where the enzymes continue to digest. In the last part of the stomach, nitrogen is recycled and hydrochloric acid acts in the degradation of the molecules.

Regarding the gastrointestinal tract of the Vicugna pacos, it also adapts to the forage it consumes. Thus, the colon plays an important role in water reabsorption and intestinal digestion..

In relation to the distal fermentation chamber, it is large, which may be an indication that fermentation is fractional, in the distal and proximal chambers..


The alpaca is a social animal, where groups are made up of a dominant male, one or more females, and their young. In the area where he lives, he has a place where everyone in the herd deposits their feces and urine..

So even if you have to walk far, use the communal manure pile. As in most South American camelids, these deposits are a source of chemical communication between alpacas. In addition, these wastes are collected and used by man as natural fertilizer..

This species usually defends its territory from intruders, trying to scare them away with loud sounds. In addition, he often uses body language, as in the case of the pose known as side.

In this, the male stands upright and assumes a side posture, with his neck arched. In addition, it pulls its ears back and places its stiff tail in an upward direction.

Faced with a sign of danger, the alpaca assumes an alert posture. Thus, the animal raises its body and moves its ears towards the object that represents the danger. Also, you can vocalize an alarm call and flee or go to the place where the threat is..


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