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December 11, 2019

By: Extracted and edited from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The ALPACA: vicugna pacos (LaCroix Alpacas)

A domesticated species.

Alpacas in Ecuador. [Philip Lavoie]

Alpacas in Ecuador. [Philip Lavoie]

An alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid.

Scientific Classification:

Family: Camelidae
Genus: Vicugna
Species: V. pacos
Binomial name: Vicugna pacos (Linnaeus, 1758)

CATEGORIES:
Native area
History of Scientific Name
Alpacas and Vicuñas
Fiber
Shearing
Handling
Spitting
Sounds
Hygiene
Manure
Acreage
Diet
Lifespan
Hardiness
Digestion
Poisonous plants
Reproduction
Gestation and Weaning


Native area:

In southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile, alpacas are kept in herds that graze throughout the year on the level heights of the Andes at an altitude of 11,500 feet to 16,000 feet above sea level.

History of the Scientific Name:

The relationship between alpacas, llamas, and vicuñas was disputed for many years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the four South American lamoid species (alpaca, llama, vicuña, and guanaco) were assigned scientific names. At that time, the alpaca was assumed to be descended from the llama, while similarities in size, fleece, and dentition between the alpaca and the vicuña were ignored. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas and, unlike llamas, they were bred specifically for their fiber. Classification of the alpaca was further complicated by the fact that all four species of South American camelids can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Late in the 20th century, with the advent of DNA technology, a more accurate classification was finally possible. In 2001, the alpaca genus classification was officially changed from Lama pacos to Vicugna pacos, following the presentation of a research paper on alpaca DNA by Dr. Jane Wheeler, et al. to the Royal Society, demonstrating that the alpaca is descended from the vicuña and not the guanaco.

Alpacas and Vicuñas:

The alpaca is larger than the vicuña, but smaller than the other camelid species. Of the various camelid species, the alpaca and vicuña are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the fineness and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuña because of the extreme fineness of its fiber.

Fiber:

Alpaca fleece is a lustrous, silky, soft, and luxurious natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer than sheep’s wool; neither is it prickly; nor does it bear no lanolin, making it hypo-allergenic. Without lanolin, however, it does not repel water. In physical structure, alpaca fiber is somewhat akin to hair, being very glossy. Alpaca fiber is also flame-resistant and meets the US Consumer Product Safety Commission's standards. The preparation, carding, spinning, weaving, and finishing processes for alpaca fiber are very similar to the processes used for wool. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, such as blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles, ponchos, sweaters, socks, coats, and bedding. The fiber comes in more than 52 natural colors, as classified in Peru, and 16, as classified in the United States.

Shearing:

Shearing of the alpaca should occur annually in the spring when the nights aren’t too cool and it is most often accomplished with the alpaca restrained on a mat on the ground.

Handling:

Alpacas are social herd animals and need the company of other alpacas. Although domesticated, few alpacas tolerate being stroked or petted, and most alpacas do not cooperate easily when abruptly grabbed rather than being herded and gently, but firmly, held. Although many do not like their feet, lower legs, and especially their abdomens to be touched, tolerating this type of handling, for the purposes of toenail and teeth trimming, is learned with proper training.

Spitting:

Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable of doing so. "Spit" is a somewhat euphemistic word. Occasionally, the “spit” contains only air, a little grass, and a little saliva. However, alpacas commonly spit acidic stomach contents (generally a green, grassy mix) and project it onto their chosen targets. In a healthy herd, spitting should be reserved for other alpacas; not for humans.

For alpacas, spitting results in what is called a "sour mouth". “Sour mouth” is characterized by a loose-hanging lower lip and a gaping mouth. This is caused by the irritation of the stomach acids in the mouth and the unpleasant taste of the contents that remain there.

Sounds:

Alpacas make a variety of sounds. Alpacas warn their herd about intruders by making sharp, noisy inhalations that sound like a high-pitched bray. The herd may attack small intruders with their front feet and may spit and kick at them. However, protective fencing is necessary to prevent dangerous predators from entering the alpacas’ pastures. When they are in danger, they make a high-pitched, shrieking whine. Strange dogs – and even cats – may trigger this reaction.

To signal friendly or submissive behavior, alpacas "cluck" or "click", a sound possibly generated by suction on the soft palate or possibly in the nasal cavity. When males fight, they scream a warbling, bird-like cry, presumably intended to terrify the opponent.

Individuals vary, but most alpacas generally make a humming sound. Hums are often comfort noises, letting the other alpacas know that they are present and content. However, the humming can take on many inflections and meanings.

Hygiene:

Alpacas use communal poop piles. This behavior tends to limit the spread of internal parasites. Males tend to have tidier and fewer poop piles than females while females tend to loosely congregate in more areas. One female will approach the poop pile and begin to urinate and/or defecate, and the rest of the herd often follows.

Manure:

There are no viable seeds in alpaca manure because alpacas prefer to eat tender plant leaves and avoid thick plant stems with seeds, and the alpaca stomach thoroughly digests any seeds that are eaten. Therefore, alpaca manure does not need composting to destroy foreign seeds. However, composting may be advisable in order to destroy possible parasites. Similar to other ruminants, alpacas have only lower teeth at the front of their mouths and, therefore, do not pull grass up by the roots. However, rotating pastures is still important because alpacas have a tendency to over-graze an area.

Acreage:

Because alpacas establish designated areas for waste products (“poop piles”) and tend to eat away from the waste areas, it is possible to pasture up to 6 alpacas per acre. However, this ratio differs from country to country and is highly dependent upon the quality of the pasture available.

Diet:

Alpacas require much less food than most animals of their size. They generally eat leafy grasses, such as orchard grass or timothy, and low-protein grass hay, but will also eat other plants (e.g. some leaves) and might try to chew on almost anything (e.g. an empty bottle). Many alpaca owners rotate their feeding grounds so that the grass regrows and fecal parasites die before reusing the area.

Free-range alpacas in South America obtain the necessary vitamins and minerals for health in their native grazing ranges. However, in order to provide selenium and other necessary vitamins in many areas of North America, owners offer their alpacas a free-choice camelid vitamin/mineral blend (plus whole oats, as needed) or, depending upon the nutritional needs of the alpacas, a feed specifically formulated with camelid vitamins and minerals.

Lifespan:

Alpacas can live for up to 20 years.

Hardiness:

Indigenous to the highest regions of the Andes, that harsh environment has created hardy animals with three-chambered stomachs that allow for extremely efficient digestion. Alpacas need to eat only 1-2% of body weight per day, or approximately two 60 lb. 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.

Digestion:

The three-chambered stomach of the alpaca, combined with cud-chewing, allows maximum extraction of nutrients from lower protein (12-14%) forages (leafy grasses). Alpacas chew their food in a figure eight motion, then swallow the food, passing it into the first and second stomach chambers, where the fermentation process begins. The alpaca will further absorb nutrients and water in the first part of the third chamber. The end of the third chamber is where the stomach secretes acids to digest food, and, if stressed, is the likely place where an alpaca will have ulcers. The alpaca digestive system is very sensitive and must be kept healthy and balanced.

Poisonous plants:

Many plants are poisonous to the alpaca, including the bracken fern, fireweed, oleander, and some azaleas. In common with similar livestock, other plants include acorns, African rue, agave, amaryllis, autumn crocus, bear grass, broom snakeweed, buckwheat, ragweed, buttercups, calla lily, orange tree foliage, carnations, castor beans, and many others.

Reproduction:

Although males are rarely capable of breeding at a younger age, an alpaca male is usually ready to mate for the first time between one and one half to three years of age. At the tip of the extended penis is cartilage, an irritant to the female reproductive system. Excessive breeding and the subsequent irritation are a common cause of uterine infections. Therefore, a female should not be bred more than twice in 48 hours AND then not bred again for 12 days after the first breeding, if rebreeding is necessary.

Female alpacas are "induced ovulators": the act of mating and the presence of semen causes them to ovulate. Therefore, females often conceive after just one breeding. A female alpaca may fully mature (physically and mentally) between 12 and 24 months. Because the age of maturation varies greatly between individuals, it is usually recommended that breeders wait until females are 18 months of age or older before initiating breeding.

Gestation and Weaning:

The gestation period is 345 ± 15 days, and usually results in a single offspring, called a 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 although it is not requisite to rebreed her immediately. Crias may be weaned through human intervention at about six months old and 60 pounds in weight, but some breeders prefer to allow the female to decide when to wean her offspring. Crias can be weaned earlier or later depending upon their size and their emotional maturity.

*CAMELIDS: a family of ruminant mammals [e.g., alpacas, llamas, vicuñas, guanacos, and camels] that have three-chambered stomachs and long limbs with two toes.



Alpaca scene in Chile. [Wikipedia]

Alpaca scene in Chile. [Wikipedia]

Alpaca range in South America.

Alpaca range in South America.

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.