What is a cria?

Article published in May. 2002 edition of Seneca Park Zoo Docent Newsletter

What is a cria?
By Helen Dishaw

Hopefully you all know the answer to the question "What is a cria?" because that would mean that you did in fact read the article I submitted a few months ago entitled "An introduction to Alpacas"… and for those of you who didn't there's a big clue!  To save you rummaging through file cabinets to find the old copies of the docent newsletter – I will refresh your memory… A cria (pronounce cree-ah) is the name for a baby alpaca (llama, vicuna, or guanaco also).  I am proud and thrilled to announce that we just experienced the birth of our first cria on our alpaca farm.  Our newest addition is named "Paku" which means "alpaca" in the ancient Incan language of Quechua. So in celebration and tribute of Paku and magical alpaca crias everywhere I thought I'd submit a follow up article. 

Of course alpacas are technically considered a domestic animal but all of the information here would be directly applicable to their wild relatives the South America guanaco and vicuna, and the information on the miracle of their digestive system would be the same for all junior ruminants and pseudo-ruminants (which of course includes our visiting giraffes!).

After an 11-month gestation period the cria is born with the whole herd gathering around in an attempt to protect against potential predators.  Alpacas give birth standing so life begins with a none-to-graceful flop to the earth.  Birth is usually (as for most prey animals) relatively quick and problem free and the whole emergence typically takes less than 30 minutes.  Most births take place between 8am and noon – while unproven it is speculated that this birthing pattern is a continuation of the birthing patterns observed in the alpaca's wild ancestors.  In the vicuna and guanaco populations, delivery during the relatively warmer daylight hours may increase cria survival rate by reducing fatalities due to hypothermia during the cold Andean nights.  Alpaca crias typically weigh between 14 and 18 lbs at birth and look like something straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss – a quaint cross between fawn, lamb and giraffe calf…like all nature's babies utterly adorable and amazingly resilient.  Crias and dams begin their bonding rituals immediately after birth, getting to know each other's smell and also sound.  One of the most charming bonding methods, in my opinion, is in their quaint vocalizations – mothers and babies will hum back and forth to one another in creaky, kazoolike murmurs, I'm not sure what they are saying but as an enchanted onlooker, or should that be 'onlistener' the sound is somehow soothing and indicative of an 'all's right with the world' general feeling.  It is a treat and a privilege to be allowed to listen in!

Alpacas, and their camelid cousins are described as precocial species - most crias will be up and standing (albeit somewhat shakily) within the first hour of birth, walking, even running, and attempting to nurse shortly thereafter.  This in itself – as with many other non-human species – is Mother Nature at her most amazing… in it's first 24 hours of life outside the womb, the cria has achieved what it takes us humans 2 to 3 years to master!   Between the ages of three months and one year of age alpacas grow at an alarming rate – in one year alpaca females go through what a human female goes through in 14 years. 

At anywhere from 3 months on mama alpaca will decide it is time to wean her freeloading offspring… after all she is already 2 ½ months into her next pregnancy by this time!  At this time the cria goes from being a milk drinker to a grass-digesting ruminant – another of Ma Nature's miracle.  Like all ruminants alpacas have a divided stomach.  True ruminants have four chambers (reticulum, rumen, omassum and abomassum), alpacas are strictly considered pseudo-ruminants with a three-chambered stomach, the omassum being so small as to be insignificant; however the mechanics are the same.  The first three parts of a ruminants stomach (often referred to as the forestomach) deal primarily with the fermentation of the grasses that make up a ruminants herbivorous diet and the abomassum is the part which deals with digestion in the true sense of the word.  An interesting structure can be found in ruminants called the gastric groove.  This groove runs the entire length of the forestomach and can nearly completely close in infants forming a 'tube' to transport liquids directly from the esophagus to the abomassum, bypassing the rumen etc., so that it can be properly digested.  As the cria (or other infant ruminant) matures and begins eating a fibrous plant diet, the gastric groove stops closing so food can enter the rumen for fermentation.  I found this to be one of those "little-but-amazing" facts that you come across in nature – an unimprovable, perfectly engineered system!

On a lighter note, crias have that magical element of youthful exuberance.  In a world where energy is limiting and adult animals of all species, predator and prey alike are all too aware of the necessity to conserve energy until it is really needed, crias seem to burn it as if there were no tomorrow.  Get a few of them together and you will be treated to the kind of wonderfully hilarious haphazard ballet that only nature's babies seem capable of.  As if on cue and usually around dusk, crias will spring into the air, twisting their heads and arching their backs in joyous 'pronking' or 'sproinging' – a spontaneous performance that really has nothing to do with locomotion and everything to do with the exuberance of being young and alive… and being an alpaca. 

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