About Alpacas: Some facts and a history

In addition to their obvious visual appeal, the elegant and gentle alpaca, relative of the llama and the wild vicuña, can provide an agricultural business and lifestyle that can be enjoyed by the whole family . There are two breeds of alpacas, the long haired suri, and the shorter fleeced, “fluffy” Huacaya. Both provide the luxurious fleece prized by ancient Incan royalty. These charming animals produce an ultra fine fiber in 22 natural colors, that can be spun into yarns for knitting and woven to produce garments from socks and gloves to fine suitings. Many farms have small shops on their property, where they sell yarns and products made from alpaca fiber. Because alpacas are shorn annually, alpaca fiber is a naturally renewing resource, making the alpaca industry environmentally friendly, or “green.” 

Physical Facts

  • Life Span ~15 - 20+ years

  • Height 32"- 39" at the shoulder

  • Birth Weight 10 - 25 pounds

  • Adult Weight 100 - 250 pounds

  • Reproduction, Birth & Babies

Sexual maturity

  • Male ~1 _ - 4 years of age

  • Females are first bred ~ 16-30 months of age

  • Induced ovulation

  • Do not have a heat (estrus) cycle and can be bred any time of the  year

  • 2 week ‘waves’ of receptivity

  • Gestation ~355 (315-370) days

  • Single baby (cria) usually delivered from a standing position during daylight hours

  • Twinning is quite rare

  • ~ 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands, most of which can be found in Peru

  • First importation into the U.S. in 1984.The North American herd has increased from a few alpacas in zoos and private collections to about 130,000

  • Alpacas are popular internationally for their luxury fiber and as pet, show, and investment animals in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, as well as the United States 

2 breed types
• Huacaya – highly crimped fleece
• Suri – long, locked, lustrous straight fiber
• Both fleeces are soft and free of guard hair
• In the US ~80% of alpacas are huacaya
• Fibers of both types are considered luxury fibers in the textile trade because of their unique qualities
• Tuis or yearling alpacas provide the finest fleeces
• 22 colors in 7 color groups, shown at right 

Alpacas express themselves in several ways

  • A soft hum

  • Other vocalizations

  • body language

  • neck posturing

  • ear and tail positioning

  • head tilt

  • They have excellent eyesight and hearing, and will alert the herd and their human keepers with a staccato alarm call of perceived danger

  • Alpacas rarely spit at people unless frightened or abused, but will use this form of communication with each other to register a complaint

Alpaca personality

  • Alert, curious, calm and predictable

  • They need the companionship of other camelids

  • They will huddle together or move en masse when frightened or wary 

What are alpacas used for?

  • Alpacas are shorn for their valuable fleeces

  • Their compact size contributes to easy management and to a desirability as a companion animal

  • Alpacas easily learn to lead, jump in and out of vehicles, kush (lay down), and obey other simple commands

  • They are popular show animals

  • Alpacas can be seen at fairs and fiber fests throughout North America

  • No other animal which produces fiber for textile use has such an enormous variety of colors 

What do they eat?

  • Alpacas are modified or pseudo ruminants

  • They rank high in digestive efficiency and do well on good quality forage and hays

  • Occasional supplemental feeds, vitamins, and minerals are provided when required

  • An alpaca costs far less to feed than most traditional domestic animals 

Origins - North America

  • Many fossils found in US

  • Range from rabbit-size to ~15 feet at the shoulder!

  • 40-45 million years ago

  • Evolved into several dozen genera 

  • Migration across Bering Strait land bridge to Asia (Camilini) and across Panamian isthmus to South America (Lamini)

  • Camelids remained in North America until near the end of the Pleistocene epoch between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago

  • Class – Mammalia, Order – Artiodactyla, Suborder – Tylopoda,

  • Family - Camelidae 

South American
• 2 wild camelids
• Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) – Peru, Ecuador, Patagonia
• Vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) – Peru • 2 domestic camelids
• Llama (Lama glama) 
• Alpaca (Vicugna pacos, known as Lama pacos for past 2 centuries) 

Evolution and History

  • Old World Camelini & New World Lamini diverged ~11 million years ago, but they share many characteristics

  • Herbivores living in open habitats from savanna grassland to desert

  • Split upper lip

  • Long necks, slender heads, long eyelashes, padded feet with two toes

  • Get by without much water 

  • Three-chambered stomach (psuedo ruminants)

  • Food to 1st stomach (C1), regurgitated, then moves to 2nd and 3rd compartments

  • Defense – spitting foul smelling fluid from 1st stomach chamber Pacing gait (although they can move at 4 beat walk) 

Differences between Old and New World

  • Old World camelids were large beasts of burden, with the wild species essentially extinct

South American (New World) camelids:

  • Wild and domestic species exist today

  • No humps

  • Thick warm fleece

  • Extra large hearts and large lung capacity that adapted to high altitudes and low oxygen of the altiplano 

Wild Camelids of South America

  • Weigh 80 -110 pounds

  • Live on windswept, cold, semi-arid plains “puna” between 10,000 and 16,000 feet, the Andes in central Peru, western Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, and northern Chile Guanaco

  • Weigh 185 - 300 pounds

  • Live at sea level up to 13,000 feet in open habitat in and around the Andes, in Northern Peru to the southern tip of South America – most are in Patagonia in southern Chile and Argentina

South American Development

  • Llama likely derived from Guanaco

  • Alpaca may have derived from Vicuña

  • Both lack enamel on tongue side of incisors

  • Incisors grow continuously, unlike llama

  • Some DNA evidence is also suggestive that Alpaca developed from Vicuña

  • Domestication probably occurred about 6,000 years ago

  • Pucara culture of Lake Titicaca region flourished ~2,500 years ago

  • Alpacas were bred intensely for high-quality fleece production

  • Although there were not written records, some estimates from early Spanish accounts mention loyal Inca vassals owning 50,000 alpacas each

  • Incas were regimented and organized in government, life and production/use of camelids

  • Production and use of fiber involved status, religious beliefs and strict regulations with stiff penalties

  • Much effort was put into developing the fine fleeced alpaca as well as using its fleece to make fine textiles

  • Status and wealth tied to cloth – mostly alpaca

  • Incan court counted its wealth in cloth

  • Armies were paid in cloth

  • Retreating armies burned warehouses full of cloth rather than allow the victor to take the spoils! 

  • Llamas & alpacas were central to Incan religion

  • In Cuzco (Incan capital) a llama or alpaca was sacrificed every morning, afternoon & evening to honor gods and mark annual events such as harvest or birthing season of the herds

  • They were considered experts and raised single color herds and maintained purebredsTop quality herds were managed by “llama michi”, a high ranking social class who earned membership by inheritance. 

  • 3,500 miles along the spine of the Andes from the Pacific to the Amazon RiverIn 1400s the Inca Empire was enormous: controlled what is now Peru, Bolivia, southern Ecuador, northern Chile and NW Argentina, 

  • Llamas were found in all areas

  • Alpacas were restricted to higher elevations

  • Pre-conquest alpaca mummies were found at “El Yaral”

  • 1000 year old animal mummies

  • Extremely fine fleeces and very uniform - Better than we have now! 

Machu Picchu, Peru

  • Alpacas & llamas lived at Machu Picchu!

  • It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, which is 50 miles northwest of Cuzco and through which the Urubamba River flows. Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", Machu Picchu is one of the most familiar symbols of the Inca Empire.

  • The Incas started building it around AD 1430 but was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a hundred years later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Although known locally, it was largely unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction.

  • Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place. 

Textiles – the coin of the realm

  • State-controlled textile industry

  • Kept records of flock sizes – color, gender, size

  • Records kept on quipus – knotted recording devices made of alpaca fiber

  • Commoners wore cloth woven from guanaco or llama (called aluascay)

  • High ranking officials and nobility wore alpaca (called gami) and vicuña (cumbi) cloth

Rediscovery of Alpaca Fleece - Mid – 1860s

  • Sir Titus Salt, an English wool merchant, noticed bags containing Peruvian sheep's wool were made of a “superb” material – with an impressive sheen and feel. The shipment also contained a bag of “odd” fiber which Salt processed into yarn. This fascinating man built a town – Saltaire – for his mill and employees.

  • This eventually led to English investment in Peruvian textile

  • Mills were developed in Arequipa, Peru and owned by British until 1990s when Peruvian & multi-national groups bought them out

  • Alpaca garments were fairly common in US in the early to mid 20th century

  • Now, becoming more well known again – for its soft handle against the skin – it is considered a luxury!

  • Embroidered tapestries:  Spanish took many to Spain, but destroyed them before understanding their meaning 

Spanish Conquest

  • The Spanish came for precious metals – gold & silver

  • Once in South America, they enslaved Incan people, killed most alpaca and llamas and brought sheep, cattle, horses, mules, swine, dogs. Pre-Conquest estimates of alpacas & llamas 10s to 50 million animals!

  • Within 100 years – 90% were gone! Also 80% of the native people! Quechua & Aymara pastoralists & their animals were considered inferior by the Spanish for their non-Christian religious beliefs 

Alpacas in modern North America

  • Imports from Chile started in the early 1980s

  • Imports from Peru in the early 1990s

  • The last imports were in 1998

  • 2 of the early importers were in Ohio

  • 1 each in Michigan, Indiana, California

  • Popular show animals

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