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Alpacas constantly communicate through a wide range of complex gestures. They use body posture; ear, tail, head and neck signals; vocalization; scent and smell; locomotion displays and herd response to communicate with one another. Understanding how alpacas communicate is both entertaining and an extremely valuable herd management tool. Understanding the alpaca language can allow an owner/breeder to gauge compatibility, rank, level of aggression of males, reproduction readiness of females and males in their herds. This display will focus on the body, vocalization, scent and smell areas of alpaca communication.
BODY LANGUAGE: Broadside Pose – Males strike a pose broadside to signal aggression from far off. They stand sideways, rigidly holding their tail high, neck arched, ears pinned back and nose tilted skyward. It can signal to an intruding male a mile off that it’s approaching the gesturing male’s territory. A male in the company of females is likely to strike this pose. This pose is used for intimidation. Females may also use this pose when warning another female alpaca at a feeding station, or elsewhere in the paddock. She may also use this pose to warn male alpacas that she is not interested in breeding.
Alert Stance – When a dog or cat walks nearby, all alpacas will stand with their bodies rigidly erect and rotate their ears forward in the direction they are staring. The tail is usually slightly elevated. Often an entire herd will strike this position, all of them directing their sight to the same object of concern. This posture signals curiosity about a change occurring in the immediate environment. This posture will come before and “alarm call” or rapid flight, if the herd interprets the change as danger. It also will cause the entire herd to bunch together and move forward in unison to investigate or chase of the intruding animal. Alpacas have keen eyesight and can often see hidden creatures long before people are aware of a foreign presence near the herd.
Stand off (stare off)- Two animals will stand rigidly within a few feet of each other, ears pressed back, neck held high, head tilted upward and tail elevated. The stand-off is a middle grade show of aggression, often between alpacas of similar rank. It happens when neither alpaca immediately yields to another’s show of dominance. If one of the animals doesn’t eventually walk away or turn its head, spitting, pushing and aggressive noise may erupt. Females often resort to this behavior near food or in defense of a cria. If this continues between the same animals, you may want to separate the alpacas to avoid continuous stress.
Submissive crouch – While slouching slightly, the animal lowers its head, curves its neck toward the ground, and flips its tail onto its back. This is a posture seen in adolescent and young adult animals and signals to a dominant animal that its higher status is recognized and that no challenge will be forthcoming.
Ear, Tail & Head Signals – The position of the ear, tail, and head along with body posture is one the chief forms of visual communication in maintaining order in a herd. A relaxed alpaca will have its ears up or slightly back, while and aroused alpaca will have its ears forward and “cupped” toward the distraction. The more vertical the tail position, the stronger the warning of aggression is close at hand. Alpacas may also tighten their lower lip (exposing the base of teeth and gum line) or dropping the lower lip, draw back their eyelids exposing the whites of the eye as forms of distress.
Vocalizations: Alpacas use complex sets of sounds to communicate with each other.
Humming – Humming is the predominant sound you’ll hear when you come to an alpaca ranch. Alpacas hum for many reasons. From birth until at least six months, mother’s and their crias hum to each other constantly. Weaning is a particularly stressful time for both mom and babe and humming is constant and heart wrenching. Alpacas also hum as a sign of distress at separation from other herd members. Alpacas will hum mournfully. Alpacas hum when they’re curious, content, worried, bored, fearful, distressed, or cautious.
Snorting – Alpacas give a very subtle snort to another alpaca if he or she is coming too close, or being too familiar. This sound is usually made when displaying the broadside pose.
Grumbling – Alpacas use grumbling to communicate a mild warning. This sound is made deep in the throat and sounds like gurgling. Grumbling is done when one has crossed the threshold of tolerance into another’s feeding space in the pasture. Rather than stop grazing, and lift their heads, the alpaca will grumble, letting the other animal know it is too close for comfort.
Clucking – Alpacas cluck (this is vaguely like a hens cluck) when intimidating a neighbor, or a mother alpaca who is concerned about her cria. This may be a form of bonding between mom and baby.
Screaming – Some alpacas are very high-strung and extremely fearful. When you handle them, or their babies, they will put their face next to your ear and let loose a deafening scream. Most alpacas who are not handled or in most cases imported alpacas will resort to screaming. Alpacas will scream when they are being attacked by a predator, or an aggressive alpaca.
Screeching – A screeching alpaca is an angry male alpaca who is actively engaged in a fight over dominance or territory. A female alpaca’s form of screeching is a deeper toned “croaking/growl” when they are angry. Any continual screeching of an alpaca is an underlying sign of severe stress to the animal.
Alarm Call – When something unusual or resembling a predator appears in the vicinity, one alpaca will sound a high-pitched, rhythmic braying sound which causes the herd to bunch up for protection.
Orgling – Male alpacas have a unique throaty vocalization they make when mating. Each male has his own style and intensity of orgling that may involve throats, lips and breathing apparatuses.
Spitting – Yes, alpacas do spit to signal their extreme displeasure, fear or dominance. Male alpacas horse around, stand each other off and spit. Both males and females spit in dominance wars over food. Moms will spit at other mom’s babies who try to suckle or mount her or get to close to her newborn. There are varying qualities of spit: air, grass, regurgitated stomach contents that are currently being re-chewed.
COMMUNICATION BY SCENT: In the wild males will mark their territory with dung. Alpacas from the same herd family will use the same dung pile. Males will also sniff the dung pile to determine the reproductive status of his females. Female alpacas will also use the scent of her cria to distinguish it from other crias. Alpacas also will sniff the face of a person bends over to greet them.