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The Biology of Alpaca Reproduction.
It is common practice in New Zealand to start mating females at around 2 years old when there is physical and mental maturity and she may breed until she is about 15 years old. Mating can start after shearing in late spring though is commonly done after New Year so that the cria are born during the following summer.
Although male alpacas reach reproductive age at about 18 months, they should not be allowed to mate until at least 2½ years of age. Earlier matings may result in damage to the penis if the prepuce has not detached from the tip, a process that is not complete in 100% of males until 3 years old . Damage caused by premature matings may then result in associating mating with pain and prevent a successful stud career. Moreover, the testes do not physically mature until 3 years of age and a correlation has been shown between testicular length and the onset of sperm production .
Camelid species do not have a breeding season but are induced ovulators. Previously, it was believed that the act of mating resulted in the dam ovulating and although this may contribute, it is now known that a stimulating protein factor (known from unrelated studies as β-nerve growth factor) is deposited with the sperm directly into the uterus . As a result, ovulation occurs within 48 hours and the egg is then fertilised. As a result of ovulation, a functional corpus luteum is present 2-3 days later. The fertilized egg may be found in the uterus seven days after mating and this implants at around 30 days. The functional corpus luteum is responsible for the production of progesterone and after about one week post-mating, the increased levels of this hormone start to cause changes in the alpaca's behaviour. There is a clear relationship between progesterone and being receptive to males - those females with elevated levels are unreceptive to the advances of a male. Although ovulation occurs equally between left and right ovaries, pregnancies are invariably carried in the left horn of the uterus. An embryo created in the right horn must therefore migrate to the left - the mechanism for this is unclear.
Very occasionally, a corpus luteum remains functional and secreting progesterone even without an active pregnancy. This results in the female being unreceptive to males and is known as a retained corpus luteum. It is easily treated by a vet.
On introduction of a male, a receptive female will kush (sit) for the male to mount her which he does whilst making a distinctive orgeling sound, believed to be another contributing factor to the induction of ovulation. It is noteworthy that females can be induced to ovulate by sitting next to an enclosure where mating is happening. Some females will not initially be receptive to the male who may bite at the back legs or rise up and put his weight on the hind-quarters to make the female cush. Other females will be totally unreceptive to the male's advances and do everything she can to avoid mating. The reason for this could include that the female simply does not like the male or perhaps already has a high progesterone level for whichever reason. Later attempts to mate this alpaca pair may be successful but it must be remembered that the females are instinctively selective.
There are two breeding methods:
- Pasture breeding in which a male is put in with a group of females, often for around two weeks. This mimics mating in the wild as although the male will mate with the females, he will graze apart but within close range.
- Managed or in-hand breeding. This involves introducing a male (normally on a halter and lead) to a female within a fenced enclosure. This should ideally be 3 x 3 metres in size, built in a manner so that legs cannot pass between the rails or boards and have a clean floor area - some breeders will have carpet laid to ensure that dirt is not introduced into the female.
Pregnancy Confirmation and Gestation
Camelids are reported to have a high rate of early abortion, mostly within the first month. The results of a 1993 postal questionnaire indicated that a third of mated female South American camelids in the United Kingdom failed to produce offspring. This did not include abortions or stillbirths at up to 4 per cent and up to 3 per cent of further losses respectively . Other estimations range between 7%  and 25%  thus making pregnancy confirmation at regular intervals during the first months critical. If pregnancy was not achieved, the dam's serum progesterone level drops back to normal by 14 days after which she will sit ready to be mated again. The induction of ovulation and resulting 14 day progesterone cycle should be considered when mating and remating.
Gestation averages 355 days from the conception date with a few not unpacked (born) for 380+ days. Swelling of the abdomen is noticeable in the last three months with the cria's movements and occasional kicks clearly visible in the last month. It should be added that some dams hide the pregnancy well, even to the experienced eye.
It is good practice to record all breeding activities and observations for future reference.
Confirmation of pregnancy can be done by:
- 'Spitting-off'. If fertilisation was achieved, the female will repel any further attempts by the male to mate with her. The term 'spitting-off' is a slight misnomer as although some dams will spit at the male, others (particularly maidens) may run away, scream, kick out or even try to jump out of the pen to escape him. Spitting-off is done by reintroducing the male (on a halter and lead) into a penned area containing the mated female and her behaviour noted. On occasions, the female reaction is so strong that taking the male into the pen is not needed and is very likely to result in the spitting of regurgitated grass. Spitting-off should be done after about two weeks post-mating and again at four weeks if a male is available. Further spit-offs may be carried out every two months to confirm continued pregnancy.
- Ultrasound scanning - Usually performed with an external ultrasound probe after 60 days when the pregnant uterus can be seen. This requires a skilled operator, appropriate facilities and cooperative alpacas. The method does carry a risk of false negative results, especially when the alpacas are examined later. One research group has successfully used ultrasound scanning to correlate foetal thorax height and biparietal diameter with age of development .
- Serum progesterone level - this rises to a peak 7 days after mating and if the mating was successful, the level remains elevated.
- Oestrone (Estrone) sulphate in urine - a sample of urine is added to a Oestrone test kit vial. The presence of oestrone causes a colour change. The manufacturers state that there are two testing periods for alpacas, between 21-27 days after mating and at 250-300 days until unpacking and the test has a >92% accuracy. The availability of this testing kit outside of the US is unclear.
- Pregnancy-Specific Protein B - Detection of this protein produced by the placenta is by ELISA. The test requires blood serum thus a veterinary is needed to draw the sample. Depending on the antibody used, the assay may be applicable to all ruminants and horses. This test is widely available, including from Gribbles Veterinary in New Zealand.
- Relaxin assay - Relaxin is a pregnancy-specific hormone used in pregnancy diagnostics for several species, including dogs and cats. A Swedish study  has shown that the FASTest relaxin test was unable to detect alpaca relaxin in pregnant animals - demonstrated by ultrasound.
Pregnancies are invisible to the eye until the latter months as the foetus is only about the size of a small bird at six months gestation and increasing staple length disguises any swelling of the abdomen. If the dam is suckling the previous year's cria, she will wean it by refusing to give it further milk. The dam will 'dry off' and growth of the new foetus can then accelerate. Movements of the foetus are evident in the final two months and can be occasionally seen as a rolling motion or kicking of the abdominal wall. Swelling of the udders occurs at about two weeks before unpacking. Note that some females can reach term without showing much, if any, swelling of the abdomen or obvious udder development.
In New Zealand, shearing is frequently done within 30 days of the unpacking date and even restrained on the shearing table it can be difficult to visually confirm pregnancy. However, some maiden dams will show slight udder development and swollen teats in the final couple of months before term. For all dams, ultrasound is the definitive method confirming pregnancy though for most owners their behaviour towards males is the practical indicator that they remain pregnant. Be aware that some dams, even well advanced in their pregnancy will present 'mixed signals' when brought near a male, showing great interest with their tails raised.
The great majority of dams will unpack within the 340-370 days window with most crias arriving in the warmest hours between 11 am and 4 pm. If the weather conditions are poor or likely to deteriorate, the dam is able to defer going into labour. This is a legacy of evolving at high altitude where the maternal instinct is to time unpacking during good weather. This gives her cria the greatest chance of survival as it must dry, stand and feed quickly. Identifying the typical behaviours of a dam going into labour is not easy and around the expected unpacking date, requires either frequent paddock visits, having a well placed live-feed video camera or ideally, having a birthing paddock next to the house.
The birthing process (Unpacking).This can be broken into three stages:
- Stage 1. The start of contractions. The dam may become restless, hum frequently and usually move away from the herd. She will stop grazing, make frequent visits to the communal midden and may alternate standing and sitting in an effort to become comfortable. The duration of this stage varies considerably but finishes when contractions reach one each two minutes.
- Stage 2. Birthing of the cria. Rupture of the fluid (chorioallantoic) sac starts this phase and is completed by the expulsion of the cria. The process normally lasts between 5 and 30 minutes but may be interrupted by resting periods and can take significantly longer for a dam's first cria, or if she is overweight. Assistance is seldom required, particularly with older females who have unpacked many times. Almost all crias are unpacked head-first, facing downwards, with the majority of dams standing. As contractions increase the head appears, closely followed by one forelimb, the second appearing some minutes later. Strong contractions occur to pass the cria's shoulders and chest. Interestingly, some dams will pause and resume grazing for a period during this stage of labour, with the cria dangling. Time in this position does allow fluid to drain from the cria's lungs however. The remainder of the cria is passed shortly afterwards, with the help of gravity. The dam does not lick the cria once on the ground. The umbilical cord detaches very soon after unpacking.
- Stage 3. Expulsion of the placenta. This normally occurs within 20 minutes of the cria unpacking but can take up to one hour. If it has not passed within 8 hours or you suspect that an incomplete placenta was expelled, veterinary assistance will be needed.
A page containing photographs of a cria unpacking which covers all of the birthing stages has been added for illustration.
Dystocia (abnormal labour) is unusual in alpacas but indicated if stage 1 of labour is longer than 6 hours or the dam shows distress through repeated standing, sitting, rolling and vocalising. Should this be seen, a veterinary must be called immediately. The most common dystocia involves the head and a single leg emerging but the other leg being retained in the uterus - a situation that may be corrected with veterinary intervention.Your birthing kit should comprise:
- Electronic thermometer,
- A tube of water-based lubricant,
- A cria sling (belly sling) and weighing scale (digital suitcase types are suitable),
- Disinfection spray as described above,
- Clean towels or paper towels,
- Colostrum powder plus appropriate feeding bottle and teats,
- Mobile phone with your vet's number available.
With the cria on the ground, the epidermal membrane covering the cria's neck and thorax should be removed and the umbilical cord stub disinfected using alcoholic iodine or chlorhexidine solution dip or spray. Be aware that the dam may attempt to protect her cria from your activities. The stub will drop off after a few days as will the gel caps covering each nail. The dam and cria should then be allowed to bond and all the herd members will examine the new addition. If everything has gone well, it is best to stand back and watch, particularly important if it was a maiden birth or if the labour was long. This is because the dam may be exhausted and become careless around the cria.
Care of the Newborn Cria
Most crias born around full-term of 355 days are fully developed. However, a number will be dysmature, being born within the normal gestation window but have not fully developed inside the uterus. They can be recognised by having low birth weights, unerupted incisors and drooping (floppy) ears, the epidermal membrane being stuck to the mouth and toes and being very slow to stand after birth. Occasionally there is an inability to stand correctly due to tendon laxity. Depending on their degree of dysmaturity, these crias may require assistance. This can range from help in standing and introduction to the dam's teats through to needing to be sheltered with the dam. Very occasionally a particularly weak cria may be born and this will need immediate veterinary help to survive, particularly if weighing less than 5 kg.
All newborn crias will have a short period of post-birth recovery and then move to a cush position usually within 15 minutes. It will then attempt to stand and instinctively look to suckle from the dam. The birth to suckling sequence can be achieved in under an hour and most will be there in under two hours. Note that the female develops noticeable udders only about two weeks before unpacking.
Birth weight should be taken, and this should be checked on a regular basis to confirm a normal weight gain pattern. The cria may lose up to 0.25kg in the first 24 hours but gain between 0.25-0.5kg daily from that point. Although the average weight of a newborn cria is about 8kg, maiden dams tend to have lighter offspring. Cria birth weights increase until the dam is 9 years old and then steadily decrease again . Notable is that the dam and cria will hum to each other frequently as part of bonding and this may continue for several weeks.
A few crias will need help to locate their dam's nipples as they may attempt to suckle from the wrong dam or even head for a dark area in a stable. New mothers should be checked to ensure milk flow as waxy plugs block the nipples. It is vital that the cria drinks the dam's colostrum as it contains antibodies (IgG) that provide passive immunity for the cria. These antibodies are unable to pass across the alpaca placenta so must be consumed. Other compounds contained in the colostrum provide gut protection from pathogenic bacteria. Immunisation of the dam with a 5-in-1 vaccine (immunisation details here) 2-4 weeks prior to the unpacking date is effective in increasing the antibody concentration in her colostrum. This fades by over 80% over the first four days after unpacking . A cria should consume 10-20% of its body weight of colostrum within the first 24 hours though antibody absorption is greatest in the first 12 hours.
Should any dam be unable or unwilling to feed their new cria, an alternative colostrum should be sourced urgently. Alpaca colostrum is obviously ideal if available but goat or bovine types can also be used. These latter two are often supplied as powders that must be dissolved in water. It is very important that the manufacturer's instructions are followed especially regarding warming of the solution to 40°C. Never use a microwave or stand the bottle in very hot water otherwise the antibodies needed by the cria will be destroyed.
If bottle feeding is needed, it is important that wider interaction with the cria (for examples talking to or touching) is kept to a minimum. This is to minimise the risk of the cria imprinting on its owner and regarding them as another alpaca. The result of incorect imprinting is that the cria may develop aggressive or inappropriate behaviours towards humans in later years, particularly if it a male. This subject is covered in greater depth on the Animal Illness page.
Dams will only feed their own crias and they check that the right one is feeding by sniffing at the base of the tail where there are scent glands. The cria's tail will be raised at the start of feeding but slowly drop during the session. Opportunist crias may attempt to 'steal' feeds but are quickly pushed away when noticed.
Within 24 hours, the cria will pass meconium, a thick and tarry dark waste composed of cellular material, mucus and ingested amniotic fluid. Should the cria not excrete the meconium, it may become lethargic and require veterinary assistance. Unfortunately, these droppings are easily missed in the paddock so the behaviour of the cria must be watched over this period.
A single cria is almost always unpacked. Although twin pregnancies are not uncommon (most reduce to a single embryo or completely abort by 45 days), twin live births are fairly rare and due to low birth weights, one or both crias may not survive. Although most twin pregnancies are either resorbed or aborted early in gestation, there have been cases in New Zealand of both thriving. Twins born at the Nevalea stud, Lucy and Lucas,  weighed 3.9 kg at birth and developed to normal adult weights. At the Gilead stud  the crias were born weighing 5.5 kg, which developed normally, and 2.8 kg (Timmy, pictured) which only grew to the size of a four-month-old.
Remating of the dam can be done at a minimum of two weeks after birthing. In nature, the dam will wean the cria after some 6 months which coincides with an increase in growth rate of the new foetus she is carrying. On New Zealand farms, weaning is usually done at six months or 25 kg body weight. However, some dams will part or fully wean the crias themselves at an earlier age by refusing to feed the cria or only allowing feeds at dusk. Weaning is normally achieved by relocating the crias into a separate paddock, ideally out of sight of their dams and with unrelated gentler adult females for security. This sudden adjustment is stressful and may take around 12 weeks; if the crias are reintroduced back to the herd too early, some may successfully suckle their dams and the process will need to be repeated.
Most of the literature below can be accessed by clicking on the highlighted link. Some links will access the appropriate web page from which the article can be downloaded but others will immediately start downloading the full reference.
3. Kershaw-Young, C.M., Druart, X., Vaughan , J. and Maxwell, W. M. C. (2012). β-Nerve growth factor is a major component of alpaca seminal plasma and induces ovulation in female alpacas. Reproduction, Fertility and Development, 24(8): 1093-1097.
6. Ferguson, F. (2018). Nevalea Alpaca farm welcomes rare twins. Stuff Online, 20th February.
9. Rogers, M. and Goffin, H. (2009). Timmy - the tiny twin's story. New Zealand Alpaca, Autumn, pp. 36-39.
24. Cebra, C., Anderson, D.E., Tibary, A., Van Saun, R.J. and Johnson, L.W. (2014). Llama and Alpaca Care, Ch.15. 1st Ed., Elsevier.
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67. Mößler, M., Rychli, K., Reichmann, V.M., Albert, T. and Wittek, T. (2022). Immunoglobulin G Concentrations in Alpaca Colostrum during the First Four Days after Parturition. Animals, 12: 167-175.
72. Abraham, M.C., Puhakka, J., Ruete, A., Al‐Essawe, E.M., de Verdier, K., Morrell, J.M. and Båge, R. (2016). Testicular length as an indicator of the onset of sperm production in alpacas under Swedish conditions. Acta Vet. Scand. 58: 10-19.
73. Pearson, L.K., Rodriguez, J.S. and Tibary, A. (2014). Disorders and Diseases of Pregnancy. In Llama and Alpaca Care. Medicine, Surgery, Reproduction, Nutrition, and Herd Health; Cebra, C., Anderson, D.E., Tibary, A., Van Saun, R., Johnson, L.W., Eds.; Elsevier Saunders: St. Louis, MO, USA. pp. 256–276.
74. Van Saun, R.J. (2008). Effect of Nutrition on Reproduction in Llamas and Alpacas. Theriogenology, 70, 508–514.
75. Wright, A., Davis, R., Keeble, E. and Morgan, K.L. (1998). South American camelids in the United Kingdom: reproductive failure, pregnancy diagnosis and neonatal care. Vet. Record, 142(9): 214-215.
76. Gazitúa, F.J., Corradini, P., Ferrando, G., Raggi, L.A. and Parraguez, V.H. (2001). Prediction of gestational age by ultrasonic fetometry in llamas (Lama glama) and alpacas (Lama pacos). Anim. Reprod. Sci., 66: 81-92.
77. Kero, L.L. (2019). Relaxin as a tool for pregnancy diagnosis in alpacas. B.Vet. Thesis, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.
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