11 Things You Didn't Know About Alpacas

From unique fur to unusual sounds, alpacas have a lot to offer.

A mother alpaca stands with her baby, or cria, in a mountain landscape
A mother alpaca and her baby, known as a cria.

Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

Alpacas may just be the cutest of all the Camelidae family, which also includes llamas, guanacos, and vicuñas from South America, and Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa. With their floppy tufts, slender necks, ingénue eyes, and coy Clara Bow grins, they are the "it" girls and boys of the ungulate world.

But beyond their charming, quirky good looks, these creatures are responsible for bearing some of the silkiest, most versatile fiber found in nature, for which they are shorn annually. Alpaca fur is a specialty fiber that has been described as stronger than mohair, finer than cashmere, smoother than silk, softer than cotton, warmer than goose down, and better-breathing than thermal knits. Along with that, alpacas themselves possess some pretty remarkable personality traits.

In honor of all things alpaca, we're filling you in on everything you never knew about these captivating camelids.

1. They're Ancient

Alpacas stand near volcanoes Parinacota and Pomerape
Alpacas were domesticated thousands of years ago. Elisa Locci/Shutterstock

Alpacas were domesticated by the Incas more than 6,000 years ago and raised for their exquisite fleece. Due to its quality and all of its superhero characteristics, alpaca fiber was reserved exclusively for the elite and nobility.

2. They're Trendy

In 1984, a small group of importers brought the first of a carefully selected herd to the United States and Canada, and they’ve been dotting the bucolic landscape ever since. The North American herd has grown from a few alpacas in zoos and private farms to about 20,000.

3. They're Therapeutic

When most people think of therapy animals they imagine dogs, but therapy alpacas are growing in popularity at hospitals, healthcare facilities, and retirement homes around the world. For example, one couple in Australia has been providing therapy alpacas for 15 years. "They're very sensitive and they're very intuitive animals," alpaca owner Nils Lantzke told The Canberra Times. "We find that after people have a talk and a pat with the alpaca, they become more relaxed and it makes the environment a lot happier for everyone."

4. Their Babies Are Known as 'Cria'

A young alpaca at Laguna Colorada, Uyuni, Bolivia.
A young alpaca surveys the surroundings at Laguna Colorada, Uyuni, Bolivia. Matthias Bachmaier/Getty Images

Alpacas have a gestation period of about 11 months, and typically have one baby at a time. As with llamas, guanacos, and vicuñas, a baby alpaca is known as a cria, from a Spanish word for baby. Newborn alpacas weigh 15 to 20 pounds (7 to 9 kilograms), and may be weaned after 6 to 8 months.

5. They Grow Superlative, Hypoallergenic Fleece

Alpaca fiber is much like sheep’s wool, but warmer and not itchy. It is lacking in lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic and also allows it to be processed without the need for high temperatures or harsh chemicals in washing.

6. They're Flame-Resistant and Water-Resistant

Mounds of differently colored alpaca wool
Alpaca wool has many interesting qualities. J. Lekavicius/Shutterstock

Well, technically their fiber is flame-resistant, meeting the standards of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's rigid testing specifications as a Class 1 fiber for use in clothing and furnishings.

Like wool, alpaca fiber is water-resistant, but it also can wick away moisture because of its unique ability to mimic cotton in moisture regain. These attributes are what make alpaca feel lighter than wool but warmer than cotton in cool and damp climates.

7. They Come in a Rainbow of Hues

Alpaca fiber comes in 22 colors and hundreds of shades, from white to light rose gray to dark fawn, in addition to the blends that can be made from those, thus minimizing the need for pollution-intensive dying.

8. There Are Two Types of Alpacas

Huacaya and suri alpacas stand next to each other
The huacaya (left) and suri are the two breeds of alpaca. Aaron Logan/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Alpacas come in two breeds: suri and huacaya. The suri has fiber that grows long and forms silky dreadlocks. The huacaya has a dense, crimped fleece — like a teddy bear — giving it a woolly appearance. About 90% of all alpacas in the North America are huacayas.

9. They Can Mix and Match

Alpacas and llamas can successfully cross-breed. The offspring they create are known as huarizo, which are valued for their longer fleece.

10. They Share a Bathroom

Alpacas use a communal dung pile (where they do not graze, thankfully). Because of their predisposition for using a dung pile, some alpacas have been successfully house-trained.

11. They Hum and Haw ... and 'Orgle'

An alpaca with a daisy in its mouth
When their mouths are filled with grass and flowers, alpacas can make some interesting sounds. irakite/Shutterstock

Humming is the most common sound alpacas make. Alpacas hum when they are curious, content, worried, bored, distressed, or cautious. When startled or in danger, a staccato braying is started by one animal, then followed by the rest of the herd in the direction of the potential threat. During breeding, the male alpaca emits a unique throaty vocalization called “orgling.”

During the National Alpaca Farm Days (which occur during the last weekend in September), alpaca farms across the U.S. open their gates to visitors of all ages to meet the woolly loves.