The Alpaca is a member of the camelid family, which includes the camel as well as the alpaca’s closer South American relative – the llama. The ancestor of the camelid family actually originated in the North American Southwest approximately 50 million years ago and then migrated from North America to South America, Asia and Northern Africa. These camelid forefathers then became extinct in North America. There are no such things as “wild” alpacas – they have always been a domesticated animal that is the product of years of selective breeding, much like the poodle or the beagle. In the Incan culture, alpacas and llamas were a treasured commodity, utilized for garments, hides, fertilizer, fuel, and meat.
Initially, Spanish conquistadors attempted unsuccessfully to transplant the alpaca into Spain in the early 1700s. In addition, there have been many other minor attempts, with varying degrees of failure, to establish herds of alpacas in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
Although llamas have been in North America since the late 1800’s, outside of sporadic importations of zoo specimens, there were few significant importations of alpacas into North America until 1984. Since that time, the North American herd has grown both by natural reproduction and through a series of large (400 plus) and small (12-20) imports primarily from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Australia and New Zealand. As of October 1999, the North American herd in the United States numbered approximately 24,000 registered animals, compared to four million in Peru alone. From 1995 through the end of 1998, imports of alpacas into North America has been somewhat restrained by the Peruvian government’s attempts to avoid losing the country’s best genetic material. The financial risk of discovering disease while the Alpaca is in the required importation quarantine, the increasingly rigorous screening inspections by the Alpaca Registry, and the fear of foot and mouth disease have also restricted importation. As of 1999, the Alpaca Registry has discontinued its practice of screening non-pedigreed animals for inclusion into the registry, closing the registry to any animal that is not the proven off- spring of two registered parents. As a result, even if an alpaca is imported into the United States, it cannot be registered. The opinion of most breeders is that this reduction of importations should keep supply and demand for the alpaca in the United States in balance for years to come. It will also allow North American breeders to develop alpacas with outstanding pedigrees that will compare with and exceed any other group of animals throughout the world.
The alpaca is a single-coated fiber animal, typically weighing between 120 and 175 pounds as an adult. The average alpaca stands about 32 to 39 inches high at the withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades) and usually cannot quite look an average adult in the eye.
There are two types of Alpacas – the Huacaya (wha-kay-ah) and the Suri (sir-ee). The Huacaya is more common, representing approximately 90 percent of the Peruvian herds and probably even more of the North American herd. Huacaya fiber grows straight out from the alpaca’s body, with fiber that is characterized by crimp and loft. In contrast, the Suri has fiber that hangs from its body in pencil-sized ringlets. Although lacking in crimp, a characteristic of Huacaya fiber, Suri fibers’ smoother shaft gives the fiber a more lustrous look and a smoother handle.
There are minor differences in the types of Huacaya Alpacas, these being typically referred to as a “Peruvian” and “Chilean”. These differences are probably best thought of as merely stereotypical differences between two populations of animals, each of which actually demonstrate a fairly wide range of individual traits. Nonetheless, it is generally accurate to say that a percentage of the Peruvian Huacayas tend to have somewhat denser fiber coverage and/or finer fiber, and that Chilean Huacayas have a much broader range of genetically based fiber colors. However, as breeders become more sophisticated and experienced, and as selective breeding continues to improve the Chileans’ fiber and add color into the Peruvian population, it is wiser to simply judge each animal on its own individual merit and pedigree according to a prospective breeders’ personal tastes.
Alpaca females can become pregnant at around one year old, and have a gestation period of approximately 11 months. A newborn alpaca, called a “cria” (kri-ah) usually weighs 12-19 pounds at birth. A cria is usually up on its feet within a half hour of its birth, and is often seen running wobbly laps in the pasture on the second day. A cria is weaned from its mother at about 5-7 months of age.
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 very 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 are typically sheared once per year in the spring. Each shearing produces approximately five to ten pounds (2.2–4.5 kilograms) of fiber per alpaca. An adult alpaca might produce 50 to 90 ounces (1420–2550 grams) of first-quality fiber as well as 50 to 100 ounces (1420–2840 grams) of second and third quality fiber.
Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable of doing so. “Spit” is somewhat euphemistic; occasionally the projectile contains only air and a little saliva, although alpacas commonly bring up acidic stomach contents (generally a green, grassy mix) and project it onto their chosen targets. Spitting is mostly reserved for other alpacas, but an alpaca will occasionally spit at a human, often for very good reason.
For alpacas, spitting results in what is called “sour mouth”. Sour mouth is characterized by a loose-hanging lower lip and a gaping mouth. This is caused by the stomach acids and unpleasant taste of the contents as they pass out of the mouth.