The legend of the Andean goddess
Our first fact about alpacas is not really a fact but instead a fun little story of their origin according to native Peruvian myth.
Legend has it that in a time long ago when men and gods communed, a goddess fell in love with a human. Her father did not approve at first but later on, relented on one condition. For the goddess to follow her love to Earth, she must continue to care for her pet alpacas. He also required that the human man be put in charge of a precious tiny alpaca at all times.
When they returned to earth, the man got lazy and put down the little animal which made the goddess panic and run back home. She tried to take her alpacas with her but could not save them all. The few that were left on Earth started the first line of alpacas bred in Peru.
Now let’s talk facts
#1 They are in fact NOT small llamas
This is a common mistake that people make. Though they are closely related, llamas and alpacas are not the same thing. The key defining difference is in appearance. Everything from the shapes of the face to the ears distinguishes these two species. Llamas are also significantly bigger and can weigh over 400 pounds.
#2 They are short and bulky
Speaking of size, alpacas tend to be very small. They can grow up to 99 cm and up to 140 pounds which compared to other livestock is pretty small. This weight and height vary with various factors, including season. This size makes it very convenient to herd them even with limited space.
#3 They come in two breeds: suri and haucaya
The main difference between these two breeds is the character of the coat. Suris have thick long fur that falls parallel to the skin. It is typically very glossy and soft and is considered the highest quality of alpaca coat that you can get.
Haucayas, on the other hand, have shorter and springier fur. It grows perpendicular to the skin and gives them that electrocuted hair look. The coat is also significantly coarser and duller. Despite all this, it can be refined and spun into yarn that is still considered valuable (and makes for incredibly soft alpaca scarves).
#4 They communicate through body language
You can tell a lot about an alpaca’s mood by just observing its general behavior and body movements. They tend to communicate not only with each other but also with handlers using body language.
For example, a male may stiffen his neck and take a sideways pose as a way to assert his dominance and scare away any challengers. They also stamp their feet when they are irritated and may lift their ears as a sign of alarm.
#5 They also use sounds to communicate
In addition to body language, alpacas communicate using sound. The most common form is humming. This, however, can be a little confusing because they hum for many reasons, including when they’re distressed, happy, or bored.
Other sounds you may hear include clucking like hens when they are being playful, especially with their young, and screaming and screeching for defense and to raise alarm.
#6 They sometimes use spitting as a defense
This is one of the alpaca’s primary defense mechanisms. They start by shooting out warning spits consisting of saliva or even air. However, when they are truly in distress they will bring up stomach contents including acids and partially digested food and spit them as far as 10 feet.
This is meant to debilitate any attackers, whether they are predators or fellow alpacas. There is also always a risk of getting spat at as a human handler if you are rough with the animal.
#7 They are clean freaks
Alpacas are famous for being very big on hygiene. They make a huge deal out of keeping their coats and teeth clean which makes taking care of them whether as pets or livestock very easy.
They are also self toilet trained. They instinctively know to take care of business away from their grazing spots, and even tend to have a communal spot at which they relieve themselves. This is mainly important as a way to prevent the spread of disease through waste.
#8 Artificial insemination generally doesn’t work
Something unique about alpacas is the fact that the females only ovulate after mating. This is unlike other livestock animals whose ovulation is triggered by the presence of sperm.
As a result, artificial insemination is rarely successful when trying to breed these animals. However, alternatives like traditional mating and embryo implantation have been shown to be very successful.
#9 They make great pets
Alpacas are good for more than their lustrous fur. They make really great pets. They are generally very friendly and docile, which means you can safely have these furry little beasts of love around your children. They are also very easy to train and respond well to reward systems. The best part is that they come instinctively potty trained so you don’t have to keep running up and down your yard hunting for waste.
#10 There are no wild alpacas in existence
Alpacas have been domesticated for millennia and, as a result, there is not a single wild one in existence. This is in stark contrast to related species like the llamas and vicunas. Maybe those Peruvian herdsman from the legends finally learned how to take good care of their alpacas.
#11 They have a patriarchal society
Alpacas are very social animals and have their own organized system. Typically, the strongest and most aggressive male is the head of the herd. In the domestication setting, this just means that they get their pick of females to mate with as well as prime grazing spots. However, in less secure paddocks, they are also in charge of security against predators like foxes and coyotes. Understanding their social structure is very important when trying to train and tame them.
#12 They are mostly calm, until they’re NOT
Alpacas are very docile creatures. They live their days peacefully just playing with each other, eating and napping. However, if you manage to successfully tick one off you will get an aggressive and potentially dangerous beast that is completely unrecognizable. This happens when the animal feels threatened, especially by improper handling.
#13 They can eat anything (well, almost anything)
Alpacas are generally grazers and will feed on anything from naturally occurring pasture grass to hay and silage. Some herders also add protein supplements into the diet especially if the animals are being bred for their meat.
In addition to this food, alpacas also have a habit of chewing on very random trinkets. This could be anything from a piece of plastic to a rogue rubber tire.
However, not everything that an alpaca puts in its mouth is tolerated by its body. They have been shown to be deathly allergic to things like agave, buttercup, buckwheat, bear grass and orange tree leaves among others. These can manifest as anything from simply an upset stomach and diarrhea to actual death from poisoning.
#14 They make for great lawn mowers
Another perk of keeping these animals is that you essentially get your grass backyard or farm mowed absolutely free of charge. This is because of their grazing technique. Unlike other animals, alpacas chew on the grass from the midway point of the leaf blade instead of pulling out the entire root and eating the plant whole. This means that you get a neatly trimmed lawn while also getting to feed your beloved animal. Win-win.
#15 They love their personal space
Do not, under any circumstances, ever approach an alpaca from behind or in any way make it feel cornered. They love to have their personal space and can get very aggressive defending it. If they get spooked or feel trapped you might end up getting hurt whether it chooses to kick you or spit at you.
#16 They have very high protein meat
Alpaca meat is not only tasty but also very rich in proteins and low in fats. However, these animals are rarely bred for their meat as the fibers from their coats are not only more profitable but also more sustainable (and they make socks that are to die for).
#17 They can literally die of loneliness
Alpacas are very social animals and thrive from being around other alpacas or at the very least other animals. If an alpaca is bred in solitude, it is more likely to get sick and die. This is attributed mainly to the low mood and subsequent poor eating habits associated with an isolated living situation.
#18 They share close ties with multiple species
Alpacas have numerous relatives in the animal kingdom both near and far. However, llamas and vicunas stand out as their closest relatives genetically. In fact, these are the only two species that alpacas can successfully be interbred with to produce viable offspring.
#19 Alpaca babies are usually born in the morning
In almost all alpaca births, the mother delivers in the morning. This naturally timed birth is meant to give the newborn a chance to acclimate to the temperature before the cold night sets in. They get to dry up, warm up, and feed so that they’ll be strong enough to survive the low temperatures.
#20 They can survive anywhere
Alpacas are typically bred in tropical weather like that of Central America, their natural homeland. In fact, there are more than 6 million alpacas in Peru alone. However, they have been shown to survive and thrive anywhere they are bred. They just need space, grass, and company.