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Featured Article: Alpacas

Featured Article: Alpacas

12th July 2012
Alpaca(C) Liz West

Alpaca is a representative of camelids family, which emerged nearly 9-10 million years ago. Surprisingly, all the camel species (including llamas and camels) have originated on the North-American continent, but after severe climate change they moved to south. In particular, advancement of glacier from the North Pole into the continent forced this species to look for another habitat. One branch of camelids family found itself in South America (as one could guess, the second branch is in Africa nowadays). In particular, alpaca is much related to llamas and vicunas, which also "reside" in the area. Their final settlement on the south is dated 2 million years ago.

It is important to mention that South-American camelids might be divided into 2 groups: wild (guanaco and vicuna) and domesticated (llama and alpaca). The first records of domestication of both alpaca and related species are dated by Moche civilization period (6-7 thousand years ago), they are testified by multiple petroglyphic drawings (animals depiction, hunting, etc.) Further development of Incas Emperor on these lands preconditioned large distribution of alpacas, which was used in various fields of livelihood: as a pack animal, as a source of meat and fiber, and, of course, religious rites essential for Incas culture. Invasion of Spaniards reduced the number of alpacas’ population significantly. In modern society, domesticated alpacas have preserved their multifunctional nature; their fleece is sold on high prices on the world market due to peculiar attributes.

The area of alpacas areal has not changed much since, and nowadays their habitat stretches along Andean highlands (Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina). In contrast to llamas and guanacos, alpaca species live on the altitude up to 5 thousand meters. People of Pre-Columbian era believed that there is no way to breed animals on low-hills; on the contrary, scientific investigations claim that before Spanish conquer camelids habitat included both plains and highlands. To date alpacas’ population counts nearly 3 million individuals, most of them live in Peruvian Andes.

Appearance and Feeding
Alpacas are 1 meter high with a body weight of 70 kg. Soft and long fleece (up to 15-20 cm on the sides) is a distinctive feature of this species, which appears to be a major value for local farmers. In correspondence to fiber diameter, alpaca’s fur is classified into four groups: Baby-Alpaca, Royal Alpaca, Very Soft Alpaca and Adult Alpaca.

Comparing to other ruminant animals, alpacas have some differences. For example, they can eat low-quality food (including all types of herbs), possessing a digestive apparatus with three compartments of the gastrointestinal tract (in contrast to common four). They gather forage much easier than other species thanks to a hare lip, which also might have influence on their low "demands" in food. Average life expectancy is 14 years, but some individuals manage to live more than 20 years.

Interesting facts
For a long time alpacas were considered descendants of llamas, but DNA testes pointed out their relation to vicunas. So, their Latin name is Vicuna pagos.Alpacas are also known for their ability to produce different sounds, such as whining (feeling danger), humming (when they are calm and pleased), clicking (being friendly), etc.

One more camelids species has been discovered lately - the result of alpaca and llama breeding. The specific feature of these animals is a disability to reproduce; therefore, they are usually used as pack animals.

Guest post is written by Maria Kruk, an author for Species.com