History, Facts, and Some General Information about Alpacas
What is an Alpaca? From where do they originate?
Alpacas belong to the Camelid species of mammals, and are one of the smallest of the camelids. They resemble a long-necked camel without any humps. They have a hairy neck and camel-like features such as big eyes, broad lips, lengthy ears, and prominent noses. The Camelid variety includes vicunas, llamas, and guanacos from South America as well as Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Africa and Asia.
The study of prehistoric life shows that this genus was first seen in the North American continent about 10 million years ago during the Eocene epoch. One of the ancient fossils which resemble that of alpacas was found in the states of Florida and California. A common ancestor to the South American camelids migrated to South America about 2.5 million years ago. Two wild species, vicunas and guanacos, emerged. They still live in the Andes. It is believed that about 6000 years ago, alpacas were created through breeding which was heavily influenced by the vicuna. There are many similarities in size, fiber and teeth between the alpaca and the wild vicuna.
The oldest known record of these animals is from approximately 3500 B.C. Incan nobles showed their wealth by the number of alpacas they owned. The regal Incans clothed themselves in alpaca fur. Alpacas were part of many Incan rituals. The natives alluded to the fleece as the “fiber of the gods,” as was more valuable than gold. A thriving economy existed for thousands of years from these animals creating wealth and prosperity for their Incan owners. However, the Spanish colonizers in the 1600’s did not see the value of this fiber, and numerous alpacas were slaughtered by the conquerors (much like the white Europeans did to the buffalo of the Native Americans in the U.S.) The indigenous people (the Kechua) took some of the alpacas to the Andes Mountains for refuge, escaping extinction. During the mid- 1800’s an English nobleman, Sir Titus Salt, recognized the distinctive properties of alpaca fleece. This enterprising English entrepreneur noticed that the fiber was more durable than sheep wool, but remained soft. Sir Salt started manufacturing alpaca clothing which quickly became popular in the rest of Europe. The fabric was preferred by the Royal family and eventually spread out to the fashion centers of Europe. Currently the center of alpaca enterprises is in Arequipa, Peru.
How did the modern Alpacas get to North America?
Prior to 1983, Alpacas were primarily found in their three native South American countries: Bolivia, Chile and Peru. For many decades prior, there were no rules governing the exportation of alpacas to other parts of the world. They were regarded as national treasures in their native lands so it was not necessary to send the alpacas abroad. Today there are about 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands, most of which are in Peru.
Sometime during the 1920’s, alpaca products experienced regeneration, and the demand for alpaca yarn began to grow, making it a valuable economic resource in Peru. This continues through today’s times. In Peru, in the 1940’s, Don Julio Barreda purposefully began to selectively breed alpacas toward better fiber and specific color. By paying careful attention to genetics, he created distinct herds alpacas, and culled out llama genes. Today he is recognized industry-wide as the world’s finest alpaca breeder. “Accoyo” alpacas are from the bloodline of his Peruvian herd.
Prior to 1980, only a small number of alpacas could be found in North American zoos and private sanctuaries. From 1983-84, there was a temporary lifting of importation rules regarding the alpacas, and at least 600 head from Chile were exported to North America. A second herd arrived from Chile in 1988. In 1990, alpacas were also brought to North America from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Australia, and New Zealand. Importation was stopped in 1999 due to the closing of the Alpaca Registry, which ensures breed purity and high standards. DNA technology verifies lineages. There are approximately 140,000 alpacas in the United States.
What are some interesting facts about alpacas?
Alpaca adults stand approximately three feet tall at the shoulder and weigh between 100-190 pounds. They have a life span of about 15-20+ years. Baby alpacas, called crias, usually weigh 10-17 pounds at birth. Usually only a single cria is born at a time; twins are very rare and have a high mortality rate. The gestation period is approximately 11.5 months (335 days). The reproductive years for a female are 4-16 years, with prime years of ages 5-10. Females do not have a heat (estrus) cycle and can be bred any time of the year. Alpacas breed lying down and give birth standing up. Crias are generally born during daylight hours. Alpacas are usually sheared once per year and produce approximately 6 -10 pounds of fleece. There are two coat or breed types of alpacas; huacaya (‘wah-KI-yeah’) and suri (‘SUR-ee’). Ninety-five (95%) percent of alpacas are huacaya, with full, puffy, fleeces whose crimp or crinkle is found throughout their fleeces. Suri fleece generally hangs down in long, separate locks, resembling “dreadlocks”. Both are considered luxury fibers.
Alpacas are ruminants (herbivore, cud chewers) with a three-compartment stomach. They transform grass and feed to energy very economically, using secretions that enable them to absorb 50% more nutrients than sheep. They eat comparatively less than other farm animals. Alpacas can survive without consuming a lot of water, but a supply of water should always be available to them. They are also environmentally friendly as they do not have a hoof, but rather two large toes, which do not tear up the terrain. They have a padded foot, much like a dog’s paw. They do not eat or destroy trees. When they eat grass, they do not pull it up by the roots, but nibble on the top of the grass, so the grass will re-grow. Their mouth consists of four teeth on the lower jar, and a hard palate on the top.
Predators of alpacas include mountain lions, coyotes, bears, and other carnivores. In its native Andes, its long neck helps spot predators among the rocks of the mountain slopes. On US ranches, llamas, donkeys, and guard dogs such as Anatolian shepherd dogs are often used as guardians.
Alpaca manure makes excellent fertilizer and may be applied directly to a garden as it is nearly pH neutral. Alpacas will restrict their pellet-like manure droppings to one or two specific locations in a field or pasture where each animal will deposit their waste rather than contaminate the entire field.
Alpacas can be vocal and express themselves with a soft hum or other sounds. They also have body language such as neck posturing, ear and tail positioning, and head tilt. They have excellent hearing, and eyesight in daylight. They will alert the herd and their human keepers with a staccato alarm call of perceived danger. Unlike llamas, alpacas rarely spit at people unless frightened or abused, but will use it as their form of communication with each other to establish boundaries or social order. They are herd animals who prefer the company of their friends and will become distressed if separated from their buddies. One should never own a single alpaca.
Why do people raise alpacas?
Alpacas have become world-renown because of their rich and fine fiber, along with their gentle disposition. Their fleece is one of the smoothest and versatile fibers that can be found in the market. It is more resilient than mohair from the Angora goat. It is more refined compared to cashmere and shinier than silk. It is softer, lighter and warmer than wool. Alpaca fleece has no lanolin, which removes the “prickliness” and makes it nearly 100% hypoallergenic. The fleece includes 22 natural colors ranging from white, ivory, reddish brown, dark brown, silver, gray, and black. It can also be dyed to many fashion colors as well. Alpacas are gentle and curious, and respond well to children, making them a popular pet on many family farms. Alpacas are also used as therapy animals in schools, nursing homes, and programs working with disabled children and adults. Their affable personalities offer a sense of calm, along with a long, soft neck to hug.