Alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid. It resembles a small llama in appearance.
Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) above sea-level, throughout the year. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, alpacas were not bred to be beasts of burden but were bred specifically for their fiber. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, much as wool is. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks, coats and bedding in other parts of the world. The fiber comes in more than 52 natural colors as classified in Peru, 12 as classified in Australia and 16 as classified in the United States.
In the textile industry, "alpaca" primarily refers to the hair of Peruvian alpacas, but more broadly it refers to a style of fabric originally made from alpaca hair but now often made from similar fibers, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even high-quality English wool. In trade, distinctions are made between alpacas and the several styles of mohair and luster.
Ceramic alpaca, Moche culture (Larco Museum, Lima)Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years. The Moche people of Northern Peru often used alpaca images in their art. There are no known wild alpacas, though its closest living relative, the vicuña (also native to South America), are believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca. The alpaca is larger than the vicuña but smaller than the other camelid species.
Along with camels and llamas, the alpaca are classified as camelids. Of the various camelid species, the alpaca and vicuña are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuña because of the softness, fineness and quality of its coat.
Alpacas are too small to be used as pack animals. Instead, they are bred exclusively for their fiber and meat. Alpaca meat was once considered a delicacy by Andean inhabitants. A recent resurgence in alpaca meat was curtailed by a recent change to Peruvian law granting the alpaca protected status. Today, it is illegal to slaughter or trade in alpaca meat. Because of the high price commanded by alpaca on the growing North American alpaca market, illegal alpaca smuggling has become a growing problem.
Alpacas and llamas can successfully cross-breed. The resulting offspring are called huarizo, which are valued for their unique fleece and gentle dispositions.
Closeup of an alpaca's faceAlpacas are social herd animals that live in family groups consisting of a territorial alpha male, females and their young. Alpacas warn the herd about intruders by making sharp, noisy inhalations that sound like a high pitched bray. The herd may attack smaller predators with their front feet, and can spit and kick.
Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable of doing so. "Spit" is somewhat euphemistic; occasionally the projectile contains only air and a little saliva, although alpacas commonly bring up acidic stomach contents (generally a green grassy mix) and project it onto their chosen target. Spitting is mostly reserved for other alpacas, but an alpaca will occasionally spit at a human.
For alpacas, spitting results in what is called "sour mouth". Sour mouth is characterized by a loose-hanging lower lip and a gaping mouth. This is caused by the stomach acids and unpleasant taste of the contents as they pass out of the mouth.
To help alpacas control their internal parasites they have a communal dung pile, where they do not graze. Generally, males have much tidier, and fewer dung piles than females who tend to stand in a line and all go at once. One female approaches the dung pile and begins to urinate and/or defecate, and the rest of the herd often follows.
Because of their preference for using a dung pile, some alpacas have been successfully house-trained.
A group of alpacasAlpacas make a variety of sounds. When they are in danger, they make a high-pitched, shrieking whine. Some breeds are known to make a "wark" noise when excited. Strange dogs—and even cats—can trigger this reaction. To signal friendly or submissive behavior, alpacas "cluck," or "click" a sound possibly generated by suction on the soft palate, or possibly in the nasal cavity.
Individuals vary, but most alpacas generally make a humming sound. Hums are often comfort noises, letting the other alpacas know they are present and content. The humming can take on many inflections and meanings.
When males fight they scream a warbling bird-like cry, presumably intended to terrify the opponent.
A male is usually ready to mate for the first time between one and three years of age. A female alpaca may fully mature (physically and mentally) between 12−24 months. It is not advisable to allow a young female to be bred until she is mature, as over breeding a young female before conception is possible is a common cause of uterine infections. As the age of maturation varies greatly between individuals, it is usually recommended that novice breeders wait until females are 18 months of age or older before initiating breeding.
Pregnancies last 11.5 months ± 2 weeks, and usually result in a single offspring, or cria. Twins are rare, approximately 1⁄1000. After a female gives birth, she is generally receptive to breeding again after approximately two weeks. Crias may be weaned through human intervention at approximately 6 months and 60 pounds. However, many breeders prefer to allow the female to decide when to wean her offspring. Offspring can be weaned earlier or later depending on their size and emotional maturity.
Alpacas generally live for up to 20 years.
Alpacas generally eat hay or grasses, but can eat some other plants. Alpacas will normally try to chew on almost anything.
Alpacas have a four chamber stomach. Because of this they have to chew their cud. Depending on which stomach they currently have most of their food in will determine how digested their spit is, as it comes from the stomach.
Many plants are poisonous to the alpaca, including the bracken fern, fireweed, oleander, and some azaleas. In common with similar livestock, others include: acorns, African rue, agave, Amaryllis, Autumn Crocus, Bear Grass, Broom Snakeweed, Buckwheat, Ragweed, Buttercups, Calla lily, Orange tree, Carnations, beans from the castor oil plant, Cress, and a great many others.
History of the scientific name
Shorn alpacasThe relationship between alpacas and vicuñas was disputed for many years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the four South American lamoid species were assigned scientific names. At that time, the alpaca was assumed to be descended from the llama, ignoring similarities in size, fleece and dentition between the alpaca and the vicuña. Classification was complicated by the fact that all four species of South American camelid can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. It was not until the advent of DNA technology that a more accurate classification was possible.
In 2001, the alpaca genus classification changed from Lama pacos to Vicugna pacos following the presentation of a paper on work by Dr. Jane Wheeler et al. on alpaca DNA to the Royal Society showing that the alpaca is descended from the vicuña, not the guanaco.
Alpaca fleece is a lustrous and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and bears no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Without lanolin, it does not repel water. It is also soft and luxurious. In physical structure, alpaca fiber is somewhat akin to hair, being very glossy. The preparing, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool.
Alpacas per hectare
It is possible to raise up to 25 alpacas per hectare (10 alpacas per acre). As they have a designated area for waste products and keep their eating area away from their waste area. But this ratio differs from country to country and is highly dependent on the quality of pasture available (in Australia it is generally only possible to run one to three animals per acre due to drought). Fiber quality is the primary variant in the price achieved for alpaca wool; in Australia it is common to classify the fiber by the thickness of the individual hairs and by the amount of vegetable matter contained in the supplied shearings. There have been several Alpaca farming scams.
Alpacas need to eat 1-2% of body weight per day, so about two 60 lb (27 kg) bales of grass hay per month per animal. When formulating a proper diet for alpacas, water and hay analysis should be performed to determine the proper vitamin and mineral supplementation program. Two options are to provide free choice salt/mineral powder, or feed a specially formulated ration. Indigenous to the highest regions of the Andes, this harsh environment has created an extremely hardy animal, so only minimal housing and predatory fencing are needed. The alpaca’s 3-chambered stomachs allow for extremely efficient digestion. There is no organic matter (seeds) in the manure because alpacas prefer to only eat tender plant leaves, and will not consume thick plant stems; therefore alpaca manure does not need composting to enrich pastures or ornamental landscaping. Nail and teeth trimming is needed every 6-12 months, along with annual shearing. Similar to ruminants such as cattle and sheep, alpacas have only lower teeth at the front of their mouths; therefore, they do not pull grass up by the roots. However, rotating pastures is still important as alpacas have a tendency to re-graze an area repeatedly. Alpacas are fiber animals; they do not need to be slaughtered to reap their product, and their fiber is a renewable resource that grows yearly.