What is an alpaca?

Origin of the alpaca

Alpacas are part of the Camelid species, just like camels, dromedaries, llamas, guanacos and vicuñas. They first appeared about 16 million years ago in North America. They later migrated to the southern hemisphere and are now mostly found in the Andes cordillera.

About 6000 years ago, they were domesticated by Alpaqueros, the farmers/breeders of the region at the time (photo #1). Alpacas were an inherent part of the Inca culture and played a central role in the daily life and farming in pre-Colombian America (photos #2 and 3). They were cherished and considered as a form of treasure by this ancient civilization. Alpacas provided not only food but also fuel (using dried excrement's) and clothing, using their fibers and skins (photo #6).

Alpacas were precious resources, reserved for the leading classes, nobility and clergy. In 1532, at the time of the Spanish conquest, they were hunted for the Spanish people preferred the merino, a sheep they had brought along from Spain. Only a few alpacas survived this carnage by staying at a very high altitude in the heart of the Altiplano plains (photo #5).

It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that some Englishmen specializing in textile rediscovered this well-kept secret. Nowadays, the world population of alpacas comprises about six million individuals, 90% of which can be found in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador.

Over the centuries, alpacas adapted very well to the harsh climate of the Altiplano. In this territory, at an altitude of 12000 to 14000 feet (3000 to 4500 meters), temperatures can vary between + 20°C during the day and 0°C at night.

Alpaca species and mowing

Over the course of its evolution, the alpaca has lost the fourth chamber of its stomach, the one in which it kept a supply of water readily available. The alpaca is an ungulate mammal that weighs approximately 150 pounds and that reaches 3 feet high (one meter) at withers height (the alpaca equivalent to human shoulders). It ruminates, meaning that it has the ability to regurgitate its food and to chew it again. Rumination is usually done while lying down.

There are two types of alpacas: the Huacaya (photo #1) and the Suri (photo #2); they differ in the type of fibers they each produce. The Huacaya fiber grows and remains perpendicular to the animal’s skin. It points to the sky as opposed to the Suri fiber that drops to the ground, just like a human’s long hair. Both species produce fibers of the same length. Each year, an alpaca produces an average of 7 to 10 pounds of fiber of different colors, as soft as cashmere and lighter and warmer than wool. In North America, shearing is done mostly in the spring in order to protect the animals from the warmth and dampness of the summertime.

Most alpaca farmers in North America use shearing tables. Here, at the Domaine des Nobles Alpagas, we shear our alpacas directly on the ground (photo #3) In South America, some farmers do not have access to electricity. In order to shear their animals, they have to use broken pieces of glass or tin cans. Despite the use of those makeshift tools, they do not hurt the alpacas while shearing them. The part that is the most sought-after by the industry is called the blanket (photo #4). This is where the most beautiful fibers that the animal produce can be found.

Alpaca physiognomy

Alpacas are respectful animals that live in harmony with their environment. They have padded hooves that do not damage the ground on which they live (photo #1). They have two toes, both covered by a nail similar to that of humans but thicker and triangular in shape. Toenails grow and need to be trimmed every once in a while (photo #2). The speed at which the toenails grow varies from one alpaca to another; some need to be trimmed more often than others.

Alpacas do not have teeth on the maxilla, that is to say on the upper jaw. They only have six incisors located on the mandibular, the lower portion of the jaw (photo #3). Both top and bottom molars are located far back in the mouth and allow alpacas to grind what they eat (photo #4). Even though they don’t have teeth at the front of the maxilla, instead of uprooting grass like sheep do, alpacas cut it using their lower teeth, allowing for new roots to grow more easily.

Males have really sharp canines, more commonly known as fighting teeth. They usually grow between the ages of two and four. Once they are fully grown, they need to be cut (photo #4) otherwise they will be used to emasculate their opponent during battles to establish hierarchy (photos #5 and 6). OUCH!

Their natural instincts, similar to that of cats, allow alpacas to share a common litter space in their shelter (photos #7 and 8), making the cleaning process easier and minimizing the risks of spreading pest infestations. When in pastures, they reserve about 10% of the available territory to their dejections. It would seem like the optimal ratio is of 8 alpacas per acre.

Alpaca fiber

The alpaca fiber was formerly reserved for Inca royalty and referred to as the “Fiber of Kings”. It is internationally recognized as one of the lightest and most luxurious fibers in the world. Not only is it very strong, second only to silk, but it is also extremely soft, warm and light. Clothes made of alpaca fiber can be worn directly against the skin.

Alpaca fiber does not bear or rot, nor does it contain lanolin. Lanolin is a form of oil that is secreted by sheep while the wool grows. It adheres so well to the wool that it cannot be completely removed, even after several washes. It is this oil that is the cause of allergies to wool. Alpaca fiber does not contain lanolin and is therefore hypoallergenic. Once you’ve tried on an alpaca sweater, you won’t want to go back to sheep wool: it is of the utmost comfort. It is so fine and so soft that most people who are allergic to wool are not allergic to alpaca fiber.

The main reason alpaca fiber is becoming more popular in North America is that it is an exceptional insulant. It keeps the heat produced at least seven times better than sheep wool does. Moreover, it breathes remarkably well which we think is its most interesting feature. You are comfortable when your body is dry. Wet clothes are uncomfortable and hamper your well-being. Try wearing an alpaca sock on one foot and one of your best socks on the other. You’ll see, the difference will be undeniable.

Alpaca genetics

From a microscopic point of view, alpaca fiber is completely empty (photo #1). This gives it great thermal value and lightness. There are 22 natural hues of alpaca fibers, ranging from black to white, including beiges, greys and deep browns (photo #3). It allows for the use of a wider colour palette without resorting to artificial colours. However, artificial coloration of fibers won’t alter their properties (photo #4).

Fiber is measured in laboratories and sorted based on their size, before being filed under one of the following categories (photos #5 and 6):

Royal Alpaca Less than 19 microns in diameter;
Baby Alpaca Between 19 and 22,5 microns in diameter;
Fine Alpaca Between 22,5 and 25,5 microns in diameter;

Fibers measure an average of 13 to 20 cm in length, 5 to 8 inches (photos #7 and 8).

This classification does not necessarily reflect the age of the animal. For example, a fiber will be labeled Baby Alpaca when the fiber measures between 19,5 and 22,5 microns in diameter. This does not mean it came from a baby alpaca. The fiber may come from an adult specimen with a very fine and soft fiber. Another important element to factor in is the part of the body that the fiber came from.

The big challenge on the part of the breeders is to produce alpacas with the finest, longest and most lustrous fiber added the highest count, the density (at least 90 fibers by square millimeter). as well as long and lustrous fibers. Finally, all those attributes need to be evenly spread on a perfectly built subject thus proving it’s conformity.

Fiber fineness of different animal species

The chart below lists the finest fibers in the world, in order. They are measured in microns. The average cross-section of a human hair is 50 microns.

Species Average diameter of fiber, in micron
#1 Vicuña 10 to 12 microns;
#2 Merinos 12 to 22 microns;
#3 Cashmere 15 to 19 microns;
#4 Alpaca 16 to 30 microns;
#5 Guanaco 18 to 24 microns;
#6 Camel 18 to 26 microns;
#7 Angora goat* 20 to 30 microns;
#8 Llama 20 to 40 microns.

* Angora goat produce the Mohair fiber.

Alpaca life

How old do you think the cria (which is a baby alpaca) on photo #5 is?

Alpacas are peaceful and vulnerable animals. Running away is the only solution they have to survive predator attacks. Alpacas’ number one enemy in North America is the dog, because he can instinctively detect the weaknesses of other animal species. Dogs will often attack, just for play.

A cria that does not run by nightfall is unlikely to live to see another day. During the night, predators attack the slowest member of the herd. For this reason, nature has made it so that 95% of the births happen between 7:00 am and 1:00 pm. If necessary, females are able to delay giving birth until the next morning, which is something that is specific to alpacas. The goal for the newborn is to be fast enough to flee when night comes.

Female productive life can reach up to 20 years and the average gestation period is 345 days. Alpacas are loving, quiet, calm, curious and easy to care for, even by children (photo #6). They require very little care and provide an exceptional return on investment. This is why alpaca breeding is in increasing demand all over the world. They have acquired an excellent international reputation in every regard.

Answer: On photo #5, the cria is 20 minutes old.