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 level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) above sea level, throughout the year. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, they were not bred to be beasts of burden, 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 textiles 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 State.
In the textile industry, “alpaca” primarily refers to the hair of Peruvian alpacas, but more broadly it refers to a style of fabric originally made from alpaca hair, but now often made from similar fibers, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even high-quality English wool In trade, distinctions are made between alpacas and the several styles of mohair and luster.
An adult alpaca generally is between 81 and 99 cm in height at the withers. They usually weigh between 48 and 84 kg (106 and 185 lbs).
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 vicuña (also native to South America), are believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca. The alpaca is larger than the vicuña, 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 vicuña are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuña because of the softness, fineness and quality of its coat.
Alpacas are too small to be used as pack animals. Instead, they are bred exclusively for their fiber and meat. Alpaca meat was once considered a delicacy by Andean inhabitants. 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 cross-breed. The resulting offspring are called huarizo, which are valued for their unique fleece and gentle dispositions.
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.
Females are “induced ovulators”; the act of mating and the presence of semen causes them to ovulate. Females usually conceive after just one breeding, but occasionally do have troubles conceiving. Artificial insemination is technically difficult, but it can be accomplished. Alpacas conceived from artificial insemination are not registerable with the Alpaca Registry.
A male is usually ready to mate for the first time between one and three years of age. A female alpaca may fully mature (physically and mentally) between 12 and 24 months. It is not advisable to allow a young female to be bred until she is mature, as over-breeding a young female, before conception is possible, is a common cause of uterine infections. As the age of maturation varies greatly between individuals, it is usually recommended that novice breeders wait until females are 18 months of age or older before initiating breeding.
The gestation period is 345 ± 15 days, and usually results in a single offspring, or cria. Twins are rare, occurring about once per 1000 deliveries. After a female gives birth, she is generally receptive to breeding again after about two weeks. Crias may be weaned through human intervention at about six months old and 60 pounds, but many breeders prefer to allow the female to decide when to wean her offspring; they can be weaned earlier or later depending on their size and emotional maturity.
Alpacas can live for up to 20 years.
Alpaca fleece is a lustrous and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and bears no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. Without lanolin, it does not repel water. It is also soft and luxurious. In physical structure, alpaca fiber is somewhat akin to hair, being very glossy. The preparing, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool. Alpaca fiber is also flame-resistant, and meets the US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s standards.
Alpacas need to eat 1-2% of body weight per day, so about two 60 lb (27 kg) bales of grass hay per month per animal. When formulating a proper diet for alpacas, water and hay analysis should be performed to determine the proper vitamin and mineral supplementation program. Two options are to provide free choice salt/mineral powder, or feed a specially formulated ration. Indigenous to the highest regions of the Andes, this harsh environment has created an extremely hardy animal, so only minimal housing and predator fencing are needed. The alpaca’s three-chambered stomachs allow for extremely efficient digestion. There are no viable seeds in the manure, because alpacas prefer to only eat tender plant leaves, and will not consume thick plant stems; therefore, alpaca manure does not need composting to enrich pastures or ornamental landscaping. Nail and teeth trimming is needed every six to 12 months, along with annual shearing. Similar to ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, alpacas have only lower teeth at the front of their mouths; therefore, they do not pull grass up by the roots. Rotating pastures is still important, though, as alpacas have a tendency to regraze an area repeatedly. Alpacas are fiber-producing animals; they do not need to be slaughtered to reap their product, and their fiber is a renewable resource that grows yearly.