An 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 flat heights of the Andes in southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an elevation of 3,500 m (11,500 feet) to 5,000 m (16,000 feet) above sea level throughout the year.
Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, they were not bred to be pack animals but were bred specifically for their fiber. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, similar to wool. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of fabrics 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 fabric industry, “alpaca” mainly refers to the hair of Peruvian alpacas, but more loosely, it refers to a style of cloth originally made from alpaca hair but now often made from similar fibers, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even high-quality English wool.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, differentiations are made between alpacas and the various styles of mohair and luster. An adult alpaca generally stands between 81 and 99 centimeters in height at the withers. They usually weigh between 48 and 84 kilograms (106 and 185 pounds).
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 vicuna (also native to South America), is believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca.
The alpaca is larger than the vicuna but smaller than the other camelid species. Along with camels and llamas, alpacas are classified as camelids. Of the various camelid species, the alpaca and vicuna are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuna because of the softness, fineness, and quality of its coat.
Alpacas are too small to be used as pack animals. Instead, they are bred solely for their fiber and meat. Alpaca meat was once considered a delicacy by Andean people.
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 crossbreed. The resulting offspring are called huarizo, which are valued for their unique fleece and gentle temperaments.
Scientific classification: Kingdom: Animalia | Phylum: Chordata | Class: Mammalia | Order: Artiodactyla | Family: Camelidae | Genus: Vicugna | Species: V. pacos
History of the scientific name
The relationship between alpacas and vicunas 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, disregarding similarities in size, fleece, and teething between the alpaca and the vicuna.
Classification was complicated by the fact that all four species of South American camelid can crossbreed and produce fertile offspring. The advent of DNA engineering made a more accurate classification 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 the alpaca is descended from the vicuna, not the Lama guanicoe.
Alpacas 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 innocuous; occasionally the missile contains only air and a little saliva, although alpacas usually bring up acidic stomach contents (generally a green, grassy mix) and project it onto their chosen targets.
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 an open mouth. This is caused by the stomach acids and unpleasant taste of the contents as they pass out of the mouth.
Hygiene: Alpacas use a communal droppings heap where they do not graze. This behavior tends to limit the spread of internal parasites. Generally, males have much tidier and fewer droppings piles than females, which tend to line up and all go at once. One female approaches the droppings heap and begins to urinate and/or defecate, and the rest of the herd often follows. Because of their preference for using a droppings heap, some alpacas have been successfully housebroken.
Alpacas make an assortment of sounds. When they are in danger, they make a high-pitched, shrill whimper. Some strains 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 roof of the mouth or possibly in the nasal pit. Individuals vary, but most alpacas generally make a humming sound. These are frequently comforting noises, allowing the other alpacas to know they are present and content. The humming can take on many inflections and meanings. When males fight, they scream a warbling, bird-like call, presumably intended to terrorize the opposition.
Alpaca fleece is the natural fiber harvested from an alpaca. It can be light or heavy in weight, depending on how it is spun. It is a soft, durable, luxurious, and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, non-bristly, and has no wool fat, which makes it hypoallergenic. Alpaca is naturally water-resistant and hard to ignite. Huacaya, an alpaca that grows soft, spongy fiber, has natural folds, making it a naturally elastic yarn well-suited for knitting. Suri has far less crimp and is therefore a better fit for woven goods.
The designer Armani has used Suri alpaca to make men’s and women’s suits. Alpaca fleece is made into various products, from very simple and inexpensive garments made by Aboriginal communities to sophisticated, industrially made, and expensive products such as suits. In the United States, groups of smaller alpaca breeders have banded together to form “fiber co-ops” to make the industry of alpaca fiber products less expensive. The preparing, teasing, spinning, weaving, and finishing process for alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool.
The price for American alpacas can range from US$100 for an unsexed male (cutting) to US$500,000 for the highest of champions in the world, depending on breeding history, sex, and color. According to an academic study, however, the higher prices sought for alpaca breeding stock are mostly unwarranted and not supported by market fundamentals, given the low inherent returns per head from the main end product, alpaca fiber, and prices into the $100s per head rather than $10,000s would be required for a commercially feasible fiber production herd. Breeding stock prices in Australia have fallen from A$10,000–30,000 per head in 1997 to an average of A$3,000–4,000 today.
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 separate from their waste area. However, this ratio differs from country to country and is highly dependent on the quality of grazing land available (in Australia, it is generally only possible to run one to three animals per acre due to drought). Fiber quality is the primary variation in the price achieved for alpaca wool; in Australia, it is common to sort the fiber by the thickness of the individual hairs and by the amount of vegetable matter contained in the supplied shearing.
Alpacas need to eat 1-2% of their organic structure weight per day, which is about two 60-pound (27-kilogram) bales of grass hay per month per animal. When explaining a proper diet for alpacas, water and hay analysis should be performed to find the proper vitamin and mineral supplementation plan.
Two options are to supply free pick salt/mineral powder or feed a specially formulated ration. Indigenous to the highest parts of the Andes, this rough environment has created an extremely sturdy animal, so only minimum lodging and predator fences are needed. The alpaca’s three-chambered stomach allows for highly efficient digestion.
There are no viable seeds in the manure because alpacas prefer to eat only plant leaves and will not consume thick plant stems. Therefore, alpaca manure does not require composting to enrich grazing lands or for decorative landscaping. Nail and teeth trimming is needed every six to twelve months, along with annual shearing.
Similar to ruminants such as cows and sheep, alpacas have only lower teeth at the front of their mouths; therefore, they do not pull grass up by the roots. Rotating grazing lands is still important, though, as alpacas have a tendency to re-graze an area repeatedly. Alpacas are fiber-producing animals; they do not need to be slaughtered to harvest their product, and their fiber is a renewable resource that grows annually.
Alpaca Fiber & Products
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- Wheeler, Dr. Jane; Miranda Kadwell, Matilde Fernandez, Helen F. Stanley, Ricardo Baldi, Raul Rosadio, Michael W. Bruford (12 2001). “Genetic analysis reveals the wild ascendants of the llama and the alpaca”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 268 (1485): 2575–2584. doi:10.1098/rspb.2001.1774. PMC 1088918. PMID 11749713. 0962-8452 (Paper) 1471-2954 (Online).
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- “Alpaca Lies? Do Alpacas Represent the Latest Speculative Bubble in Agriculture?” University of California. Davis, 2005. Retrieved 29 June 2010.