Alpacas are a domesticated member of the camel (camelid) family. The camelid family also includes llamas, guanacos, and vicunas from South America, and the Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa. This family of animals
originated on the plains of North America about 10 million years ago. A common ancestor to the South American camelids migrated to South America about 2.5 million years ago. Two wild species, vicunas and guanacos, emerged. They still live in the Andes. It is believed that about 6,000 years ago alpacas were created through selective breeding which was heavily influenced by the vicuna. There are similarities in size, fiber, and dentition (teeth) between the alpaca and the wild vicuna.
Today there are about 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands, most of which can be found in Peru. Since the major 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 20,000. Alpacas are popular internationally for their luxury fiber and as pet, show, and investment animals in Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, France, and Israel, as well as the United States.
There two types of Alpacas fleeces: huacaya and suri. Both are soft and free of guard hair. Ninety (90%) percent of alpacas are huacaya-the ones that look fluffy like teddy bears, with full, puffy fleeces whose crimp or crinkle is found throughout their fleeces and is warm to the touch.
The suri – dressed in long locks, looking rather like a walking rag mop- has lustrous, straight or curly fiber that hangs down in “dreadlocks”, giving the suri alpaca an entirely different appearance. Suri fiber is cool and tends to have silken characteristics.
Fibers of both types are considered luxury fibers in the textile trade because of their unique qualities. Cria (baby) fiber is the finest fleeces. Depending upon its weight, quality, and cleanliness an alpaca fleece commands $125 – $450. Alpaca fiber comes in eight basic colors (white, fawn, caramel (light brown), black, gray, brown (coffee), red, and piebald (colored blanket on a white body)) and 12 secondary colors.
Alpacas are shorn for their valuable fleeces, once a year usually in the spring. 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 (sit down), and obey other simple commands taught all domestic members of the camelid family. They are popular show animals. Alpacas can also be seen at fairs and fiber festivals throughout North America. No other animal which produces fiber for textile use has such an enormous variety of natural colors.
Alpacas are modified 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.
They are alert, curious, calm and predictable. They need the companionship of other camelids, and will huddle together or move en masse when frightened or wary.
Alpacas express themselves with a soft hum, with other vocalizations, and with body language, such as neck posturing, ear and tail positioning, and 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.
The cost of an Alpaca will vary throughout the United States and Canada. Pet quality males are generally lower priced than breeding stock and as with anything else alpaca prices are influenced by supply and demand and general economic conditions.
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