The old saying is that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. Well, avoiding misunderstandings with your pet alpaca will spare you a lot of grief. Probably the most difficult thing to do with animals, at least, when it comes to understanding them, is not anthropomorphizing them. Its alpaca ancestors evolved under very specific conditions, and the alpaca itself was bred for very specific purposes.
This genetic endowment, by far, will influence the behavior of your alpaca much more than its environment. Although they have lovely, pasty eyes, understand that your pet is still an animal and has its own prerogatives.
How Are Alpacas In The Wild
How are alpacas in the wild? Trick question! There are no truly wild alpacas (although I’m sure some may have gotten wild from time to time and probably haven’t fared well). For years, the alpaca was assumed, and the llama descended from a recent common ancestor: the guanaco.
While it is true that llamas and alpacas share a common ancestor, it is much further behind than the guanaco, which recent genetic research has shown to be the ancestor of the llama exclusively.
The tiny vicuña has been conclusively proven through modern genetic techniques to be the ancestor of the alpaca. They have extraordinary hearing and are therefore easily bothered. Because they are quite helpless, they are extremely shy and easily scared.
The only advantage they have when it comes to dealing with predators is absolute numbers: the odds of being fired decrease dramatically the larger the herd you encounter. Does this all sound familiar to you when it comes to your alpaca pet?
In the wild, they look for short, dense grasses and are big fans of salt, yet they can get it. They tend to lick mineral outcrops for their salt intake but have been observed drinking from saltwater pools on the Altiplano. Vicuñas tend to live in small herds, generally with the main male and 5 to 15 females.
The groups tend to be somewhat territorial, with an average territory of approximately 6.9 miles (18 km) square.
Smaller territories are possible, assuming food sources are richer and more densely populated.
There is a defined breeding season for vicuñas, which generally occurs in the months of March to April (which is different from alpacas, which can reproduce at any time of the year). Fawn becomes independent at the age of one to one and a half, and young males will travel the countryside in singles groups looking for “sororities” of independent young females to join. Therefore, new herds are constantly being formed while minimizing the risks of inbreeding.
Alpacas can be quite vocal. In fact, they probably make a wider range of sounds than most other farmyard animals, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are louder. They make about nine different types of noises, and I’ll do my best to describe them in words.
Sounds like a chicken crowing. They tend to do this in two cases: when they want to intimidate a neighbor or when an alpaca mother wants to bond with her baby (called a cria).
It describes itself. They tend to do this when they are afraid. Poorly socialized alpacas will yell at the two-legged naked big apes all the time that they sense is attacking them, so be sure to join them from a young age.
Some alpacas are naturally very nervous and will do so whenever they are afraid. It is extremely common for alpacas to scream when they see their young being handled in a way that they do not accept, or when they are being attacked by a predator.
Sounds like gargling a mouthwash. Usually, you will hear this among alpacas that communicate with each other. Think of it like a cat or dog growl, it basically means getting out of my space. They tend to do this when they graze together, and the other alpaca is cutting off their action.
This is the most common noise you will hear in the time you pass between alpacas. They tend to hum for many reasons. They will hum when they are worried, curious, happy, bored, scared, and stressed, or when something makes them feel apprehensive.
You will also hear crias hum almost constantly when breastfeeding and in the presence of their mother. The humming will be almost uninterrupted (well, figuratively) for about the first half-year of life in crisis.
Sounds exactly how you imagine it would sound. This does the same thing as growling, but it has a slightly sharper meaning. It is basically an alpaca that tells another to escape.
Not to be confused with screaming! Males will screech when in fighting mode, usually over female or territory (what else, huh?). Females screech (which sounds a little lower in pitch) when they get mad. If you hear a shriek of alpaca it is very, very angry, and it is a sign of severe stress.
Probably the most unique sound alpacas make. It is very shrill and will definitely get your attention. It sounds like a rippling metallic whistle. They only do this when they see something they perceive as a predator.
This is meant to warn the rest of the herd, and some of the smarter alpacas have found this to be a good way to attract the attention of a watchdog or llama to an animal they want to take out.
More action than sound sounds as you imagine. This is always intended to show disgust, generally towards other alpacas, but occasionally their human handlers. I guess you try not to take it personally.
Alpaca Body Language
Body language is probably the way that alpacas communicate the most. If you learn to read an alpaca’s body language, you will be much better as an owner. Unless you’re socially dumb, it doesn’t take much experience to quickly understand what your alpaca’s gestures and postures mean, as they superficially resemble that of most other animals. There are five general things you should understand about your alpaca’s body language.
Facial expressions (ear, lips, tail, and head)
Relaxed alpacas will have their ears up or slightly relaxed. An alpaca that is paying attention to its surroundings (whether stressed, curious, etc.) will have its ears cupped towards whatever it is that it is trying to hear.
You should also consider that the tail is an honorary part of the alpaca’s face – it will be in your best interest to understand that the tail is the alpaca version of a temperature thermometer. The higher the vertical position of the tail, the more aggressive the alpaca’s behavior will be.
Alpacas will also retract their lips, usually when they are distressed. If you see the alpaca’s ears retracted and its lips pursed, be careful! Its probably going to spit on you.
You will see it more in young and adolescent animals. The alpaca in question will lower its head and curl its neck towards the ground and turn its tail upwards. This is simply a submissive pose that takes on around older and potentially stronger and more aggressive alpacas. This only means that the young man does not want any problems.
Alpacas are generally alert when they see an animal that they are not excited to see. The tail is slightly raised, the ears point like satellite dishes towards the creature in question, and it will look rudely at any perceived threat.
Usually, an entire herd will take this position. Remember, alpacas don’t really have the ability to fight, so this pose generally follows the shrill alarm call described above or runs away directly. It is true that an alpaca stampede is a pleasant spectacle to witness.
Don’t be alarmed if they achieve this pose, and you don’t see what they’re paying attention to – they have excellent eyesight and even better hearing. They are prey animals after all.
The animals will ruthlessly stare each other down, ears drawn back, perhaps even a small growl with their heads up. This usually means that a fight will break out, or that an animal will give way. The next step in climbing is a pretty gross spitting match.
Chances are you see this in your herd with overly defensive mothers running to defend their young from perceived or mild danger. Yes, alpacas have personalities, so if you know that two particular alpacas are distinguished from each other, they will hold their own, and it may be time to separate or move the troublesome alpacas as you see fit.
This pose is for intimidation, pure and simple. Men often use this pose to signal aggression from a distance. The head will be raised, they will stand rigidly and keep their tails as high as they can.
Males appear to be distant from females when they are not sexually interested and will adopt this pose to maintain a certain distance. Rather, females will adopt this stance when they want to point out in as clear and simple terms as possible to potential male suitors who are not in the mood for sex. In addition, mothers will adopt this position to keep alpacas with which they are not happy away from their young (crias).
Being herbivorous prey, alpacas have an excellent sense of smell. This is used to prevent the presence of predators and also to find out where food and water sources can best be found in your environment.
Their noses are co-opted to communicate with each other as well. The most common use of the scent is to mark the limits of the territories. In the wild, vicuña males will mark their territory with heaps of manure that act as a kind of boundary marker.
Males will also sniff out female manure to determine if it is sexually available. Females tend to use sniffing to determine which cria is theirs. When it comes to alpacas and people, they will smell the face of a human being (assuming you get to their level) as a kind of greeting. It really is pretty cute.