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Alpacas

What every alpaca lover needs to know.

Alpacas 101

Alpacas are adorable, docile and soft, and are prized as pets and farm livestock around the world. There are no wild alpacas. Alpacas are domesticated versions of vicuñas, South American ruminants that live high in the Andes. Alpacas are related to llamas, which are domesticated versions of another wild Andean ruminant, the guanaco. While llamas are used as pack animals, alpacas are raised mainly for their soft fleece.


Guanacos and vicuñas are found throughout the Andes Mountains. They are descended from camelids that developed in North America and migrated to South America 3 million years ago. These animals evolved into guanacos and vicuñas, and about 6,000 years ago, people in the Andes began to domesticate them. There are two breeds of alpaca, the Huacaya and the Suri. Huacaya alpacas are more common, than Suri alpacas.  Only about 10% of the world’s population of alpacas are Suri.

The main difference between the breeds is the length and fineness of the wool-like fiber, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The Suri have very long fibers ("silky dreadlocks," while the Huacaya have a more compact "crimpy" fleece, with shorter fibers. 


Size

Guanacos are slightly larger than alpacas and much larger than vicuñas, but they are smaller and less heavily built than llamas.  Alpacas are the smallest members of the camel family. The average height at the shoulder is 3 feet.  They weigh 121 to 200 lbs.  By comparison, the llama stands almost 4 feet at the shoulder and weighs from 286 to 440 lbs.  Camels grow to 6.5 feet at the shoulder and weigh from 880 to 1,325 lbs.  


Habitat

Wild guanacos and vicuñas live in a wide range of habitats, from the high and dry Atacama Desert in northern Chile to the wet and stormy Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the continent. Alpacas are also native to the Andes, at elevations of up to 15,750 feet.

Alpacas, however, are very adaptable and have been exported all over the world, including the United States, New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands, so their "habitat" is often farmland. Still, 99 percent of the world population of alpacas is found in South America.


Habits

Alpacas are very social creatures. They are committed herd animals.  They are gentle and curious and with training can become great pets.  Alpacas need their herd family and will become sick or stressed in a herd smaller than 3.  It is thought that they also take turns sleeping so that someone is always keeping watch for predators. 

Alpacas spit when they are distressed or feel threatened. They will sometimes spit at each other when they are competing for food or trying to establish dominance. They usually won't spit at people or bite unless they have been abused.

Alpacas hum; they make a sound like "mmm,".   However, they also shriek when danger is present, and make a sound similar to a "squeaky toy" when excited. Fighting males will also scream.

Alpacas in a herd all use the same area as a bathroom instead of defecating in random areas like many animals do. This behavior helps control parasites. Males often have cleaner dung piles than females, according.  Females tend to stand in a line and all go at once.


Diet

As herbivores, alpacas only eat vegetation. They eat mostly grass, but their diets can also include leaves wood, bark or stems. Like other ruminants, alpacas have a three-chambered stomach that digests the roughage efficiently.

Unlike other grazers, alpacas don't eat much. According to the Alpaca Owners Association, a 125-lb. animal only eats around 2-3 lbs. per day. In general, alpacas eat 1.5 – 2.5 percent of their body weight each day.  It is recommended that they be fed good quality grass hay and a mineral supplement to meet their nutritional needs.


Shelter

While alpacas are very hardy and can live in harsh conditions, it is recommended that they have good protective shelters to allow them to get out of the hot, blistering sun in the summer and the bitter storms in the winter.


Offspring

The baby alpaca is called a cria.  Alpacas can be bred 365 out of the year because they are induced ovulators.  Males and females are never kept together.  The female alpaca has a gestation period of 242 to 345 days and gives birth to just one offspring. The birthing process can take up to seven hours.  Crias are usually born early in the day so that cria can be dry, standing and nursing before night falls.  

Cria, can weigh as little as 9 lbs to as large as 23 lbs when it is born. The cria is weaned at 6 to 8 months, and females are ready to reproduce at 12 to 15 months. Males take a bit longer to mature and are ready to mate at 30 to 36 months. Alpacas live up to 20 years.

Cria must be raised in their herd family.  Even bottle babies are left with the mothers in the herd to be raised.  If a baby alpaca is taken away from the herd or handled to much they can have life long behavior problems.  This condition is called, Novice Handler Syndrome or Berzek Alpaca Syndrome that is caused by the mishandling a young alpaca.  No amount of training can correct this condition and alpacas suffering from this syndrome often need to be put down. 

For many years, zoologists assumed alpacas and llamas had descended from guanacos, and they were classified in the genus Lama. However, in a 2001 paper titled "Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca" in the journal proceeding of the Royal Society B, researchers showed there is "high genetic similarity" between the alpaca and the vicuña, and between the llama and the guanaco. They recommended that the alpaca be reclassified as Vicugna pacos.


Hybrids

Llamas and alpacas can be crossbreed. The offspring are called huarizo. 

Dromedary Camels and llamas can also be crossbreed with artificial insemination.  The offspring are called cama.  They were first bred at the Camel Reproduction Center in Dubai.  The first cama was born on January 14, 1998. The aim was to create an animal capable of higher wool production than the llama, with the size and strength of a camel and a cooperative temperament.


Alpaca fleece

Alpaca fleece is a very prized fiber for artisans and crafters.  Alpaca fleece is very soft and does not retain water.  It is also very durable. According to National Geographic, alpaca fleece is the second strongest animal fiber, after mohair and one of the warmest natural fibers in the world. 

Alpacas come in 22 colors, from a true, blue-black through browns, silver and rose grey and tans to white.

Some Andean people eat alpaca meat. In Peru, it is often served in upscale restaurants.


 

Updated March 19, 2020