The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid. It resembles a small llama in appearance.
Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) above sea-level, throughout the year. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, alpacas were not bred to be beasts of burden but were bred specifically for their fiber. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, much as wool is. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks, coats and bedding in other parts of the world. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly and bears no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic. It is very soft and luxurious and is considered softer than cashmere.
There are two types of alpacas, classified according to their fiber type:
*Huacaya(‘wah-KI-yah’) – dense, crimped, woolly, water-resistant fleece. About 90% of all alpacas in the North America are huacayas. Huacaya are shorn yearly.
*Suri(SUR-ree’) – very fine and lustrous fiber which grows parallel to the body in long “pencil like” locks. Only 10% of the alpaca population in the U.S. are suris. Suris are shorn every two years.
Alpaca fleece has 22 natural shades ranging from mahogany brown to light fawn and champagne. Alpacas are bred for specific color and fiber quality.
Humming is the most common sound alpacas makes. It is like a musical purring. They use it to communicate with each other within the herd. When alarmed, a staccato call is made by one animal, then joined in by the rest of the herd focusing their attention in the direction of the potential danger. The life expectancy of an alpaca is 20-25 years. Un like lamas, alpacas spit only at each other to signal displeasure at a herd member. A pregnant female will ‘spit off’ an inquisitive male to let him know she is disinterested in his advances. Like all animals, alpacas exhibit individual personalities. Alpacas are herd animals needing companionship of their friends, and when separated, they will become very agitated.
Alpacas are very environmentally friendly. Their two-toed feet are soft pads protected on the top and sides by toe nail. Unlike hard hooves, they leave the terain undamaged, and as they graze, they only nibble the top of the pasture grass rather than uprooting it. Alpacas respond well with adults and children. They are well-suited for 4-H projects as youngsters can handle an animal in the show ring or on an obstacle course. Their large, expressive eyes seem to exhibit wisdom and childlike curiosity. Easily domesticated, alpacas are friendly, gentle and curious.
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