Alpaca, Vicugna pacos

The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a South American camelid that is similar in appearance to the llama. Its range includes the Andes Mountains, in areas of Ecuador, northern Bolivia and Chile, and southern Peru. It is a domesticated animal that is kept in herds in flat, grassy areas at altitudes of up to 16,000 feet. For many years there was confusion concerning the classification of the four species of South American lamoids, including the alpaca. Until 2001, it was accepted that this species derived from the llama, but this was changed when DNA testing showed that it was more closely related to the vicuña. Its current scientific name reflects this.

There are no records of wild alpacas in history, but it is known that they have been domesticated for thousands of years. In northern Peru, the Moche people used the alpaca in their art. In the Andean culture, the alpaca was once thought to be a delicacy, but today it is mostly used for its fiber. Illegal smuggling of the alpaca has become a problem due to the increased demand for its fibers. Crossbreeding has been found to produce highly valued half llama, half alpaca individuals, known as huarizo, that have fine hair and good dispositions.

The alpaca is smaller than the llama, reaching an average weight between 106 and 185 pounds, with an average height of up to 3.2 feet at the shoulders. It comes in many different colors, but these are classified in different numbers in different areas. In the United States, there are sixteen registered colors of alpaca, twelve in Australia, and fifty-two registered natural colors in Peru. This species is bred specifically for the production of its fine fleece, which is used to make many items such as clothing, blankets, and other similar products. Typically, the term “alpaca” is used in the textile business to denote fibers shorn from Peruvian alpacas, but this term has broadened to mean fleece made from other alpacas and even wool from sheep.

Alpaca are sociable animals that form herds consisting of females, one alpha male, and the young produced between them. The herd will gather to defend against smaller predators, but will emit warning calls for larger predators. These calls consist of high-pitched screeching cries. When excited, the alpaca will emit a “wark” vocalization that can occur in many instances, like when a strange domestic dog or cat approaches. When males fight, they emit a loud warbling scream similar to a birdcall, and this is thought to scare the opponent into submission. Friendly behavior is denoted by a clucking noise, while submissive alpacas can be heard emitting a clicking noise. The typical vocalization that the alpaca makes is a humming noise, which is used to let individuals know that the alpaca is content and in the area. These hums can vary in meaning and sound. Despite being social with each other, most alpacas will only tolerate a minimal amount of contact with humans, and only on certain areas of the body.

Some alpacas are able to “spit,” although the spit does not always contain a large amount of saliva. The spit typically contains a mixture of green bile and grass from the stomach, which is used as a projectile. The spitting behavior is usually only seen within an alpaca herd, but humans may sometimes become a target. When spitting, the alpaca can be seen making a “sour mouth,” when the lower lip hangs and the mouth is opened.

The alpaca will defecate in communal areas, which are far away from grazing areas. This behavior helps prevent internal parasites. Males and females will use this pile in different manners, with males being the cleaner of the two sexes. Females tend to urinate or defecate in a line, and males tend to use the pile separately.

Female alpacas are able to breed whenever a male is around, or after a male has bred with her. This is known as induced ovulation and is not always successful. It is possible to artificially inseminate a female alpaca if she is not successful in breeding, but any young born from her cannot be registered with the Alpaca Registry. Males are typically able to breed at one to three years of age, while females can breed at twelve to twenty four months of age. Female alpacas can contract uterine infections if bred too early, so the minimum age of breeding is recommended to be eighteen months of age.

The pregnancy period for female alpacas is around 345 days after which one young is produces, although twins can occur. The young, known as a cria, can be weaned by humans at six months of age, but many breeders let the mother alpacas wean the cria on their own. This can occur before or after six months of age, depending upon the size and behaviors the cria makes. The average lifespan for this species is about twenty years.

The diet of the alpaca consists of grasses or hay, and it requires less food than most mammals that share a similar size. Some alpacas may eat leaves and try to chew on random objects, although they may not be edible. Grasses can be enhanced with hay grass that has low amounts of protein, and some ranchers may feed their alpaca grain once a day to supplement their diet. Grazing areas are periodically rotated in order to allow the grass to grow again and to prevent internal parasites. Coupled with the ability to chew cud, the alpaca has a three-chambered stomach, which allows for maximum nutrient extraction. The third chamber is where the food is completely digested, so this is the area where ulcers can form. The alpaca cannot consume many types of plants, because they are poisonous, and these include the fireweed, oleander, bracken fern, and certain types of azaleas. Other common poisonous plants include acorns, agave, buckwheat, buttercups, ragweed, calla lilies, and carnations, among many others.

The fleece that is made from alpaca fiber is soft, and can be compared to the wool from a sheep. However, it holds warmth better and does not contain lanolin, which makes any alpaca fleece product hypoallergenic, but non-water resistant. This fleece is similar to hair in texture, and is glossy in appearance. Surprisingly, alpaca fleece is flame resistant, and if prepared correctly, meets the standards of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Alpacas are thought to be relatively inexpensive to obtain in the U.S., with geldings costing about one hundred dollars. However, those alpacas ranked as champions within the registry can cost as much as five hundred thousand dollars, depending on the history, sex, breeding capability, and color. These prices are not set by any market, though, and are largely thought to be estimations. Alpacas are a good source of income because they do not require much human intervention against predators, and they provide a commodity that is easily obtained without hurting the animal.

Image Caption: An unshorn Alpaca grazing. Credit: Johann Dréo/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)