|Alpaca Origins||Alpaca Types||Alpaca Fibre|
|Paddocks and fencing||Health||Illness|
|Alpaca Welfare||References||Other interesting articles|
The alpaca is a member of the camelid family (Camelidae). A rabbit-sized ancestor to this family (Protylopus) first appeared in the subtropical forests of North America during the Eocene Period (56 to 33.9 million years ago). By 35 million years ago, a goat-sized intermediate form (Poebrotherium) had evolved which then diversified into more than 20 genera . At least one genus, including Hemiauchenia, spread southwards to reach South America whilst others travelled across the Bering Strait to reach Eurasia. As a result, the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) are found in South America whereas the three species of camel (Dromedary, Bactrian and wild Bactrian) are now found in Africa and Asia. Although larger camelids are associated with having humps, this adaptation evolved only in Asia as a response to desert environments . The North American camel species were likely wiped out at the time humans migrated from Asia.
Due to interbreeding between the the guanaco and vicuña and later decimation of their numbers by the Spanish conquistadores, it was believed that both the llama and alpaca were domesticated forms of the guanaco. However, more recent genetic analysis  has demonstrated that the alpaca (Lama pacos) is derived from the vicuña.
Although distributed over much of South America, 90% of the alpaca population is found in Peru at altitudes between 3000 and 4500 metres where temperatures can vary between -20° and 30°C. The South American population is estimated to be upwards of 350,000 vicuña and 3.5 million alpacas.
There are two varieties of alpaca, huacaya and suri. Huacaya alpacas make up over 90% of the global population and are by far the most recognisable type. Their hair grows perpendicular to the body to produce the rounded 'teddy bear' appearance. Suri alpacas have smoother, finer fibres that fall parallel to the body in long well-defined locks.
Although the complete DNA sequence of the alpaca genome is now known and chromosome mapping  for gene locations is underway, the genetic difference between the suri and huacaya phenotypes has not yet been determined. Using data from controlled matings of suri and huacaya alpacas, a genetic model has been proposed  in which the interaction of two unknown but linked genes control the progeny type.
Alpacas are mainly farmed for their superior fibre for which there is a significant worldwide demand. Huacaya fibre is used for high quality knitted and woven products. Suri fibre has a silky sheen with great visual appeal and has found markets in high end fabrics. Both are essentially free of lanolin and harvested by shearing the animals once per year. The fibre is softer than sheep's wool, hypoallergenic (even for babies) due to smaller and less pronounced fibre scales and has diameters better than most cross-bred wool, similar to merino. The alpaca is adapted to life at high altitude so it is unsurprising that the fibre contains air-filled hollows, improving its thermal insulation properties.
Alpaca fibre can be easily mixed with other natural fibres such as merino, cashmere, mohair, silk and angora to create blends with unique characteristics and adding to market value. As these fibres are all made from keratin protein, they readily take up natural and synthetic dyes. White, light fawn and light grey are the colours most easily dyed.
Peru alone produces 80% of global alpaca fibre at 6,000 tonnes per year (2015). However, alpaca numbers are growing rapidly in other countries (notably China) though it will be many years until there is any significant change to fibre market dynamics.
A system of sixteen fibre colours is recognised by the New Zealand Alpaca Association. Ten range from white through a range of fawn and brown shades through to true black. In addition, there are six grey and rose-grey shades. Other countries have very different colour classification systems.
Reviews of the registered New Zealand huacaya alpaca populations in 2012  and 2015  by the NZ Alpaca Association showed a steady growth in numbers over the three years. Whilst the proportion of white and light fawn fleeced animals (commercially preferred) remained static, the proportion of mid/dark fawns and brown shades had decreased. The difference was made up by significant growth in the grey varieties, presumably a response to customer demand.
|New Zealand Alpaca Population||2012||2015|
A study  into the differences between the suri and huacaya fibres showed that huacaya fibre has an ortho and para bicortical cell structure whereas suri fibres consist mostly of paracortical cells. Essentially, the presence of ortho cortical cells causes the fibre to curl and crimp, a desirable trait for breeding.
The range of alpaca fibre colours and the genetic control have yet to be fully explained. Two earlier theories ,  identified two specific genes as responsible. Later work  concluded that when these models were validated against Australian alpaca registry data, they did not provide a complete picture. Inaccuracies in breeding records and the failure to recognise fleece patterned areas or skin pigmentation as relevant likely clouded the issue. Recently, an alpaca genetic study was performed  into three pigment genes (MC1R, ASIP and Tyrp1), identified as determinants for black, brown and red/yellow pigments in other mammals. The work identified many variants (polymorphisms) of these genes of which six were linked to fibre colour variation, though none from Tyrp1. The absence of this gene being involved in alpaca fibre colour was supported by pigment analysis of fibre samples.
In the wild, female alpacas may undergo puberty at around six months though matings frequently fail . It is common practice in New Zealand to start mating females at around 2 years old when there is physical maturity and the female may breed until about 15 years old.
Although male alpacas reach reproductive age at about 18 months, they should not be allowed to mate until at least 2½ years of age. Earlier matings may result in damage to the penis if the prepuce has not detached from it, a process that is not complete in 100% of males until 3 years old . Such damage may result in associating mating with pain and prevent a successful stud career. It is also the case that the testes are not physically mature until 3 years of age.
Camelid species do not have a breeding season but are induced ovulators. Previously, it was believed that the act of mating resulted in the dam ovulating and although this may contribute, it is now known that a stimulating protein factor (known from unrelated studies as β-nerve growth factor) is deposited with the sperm into the uterus . Ovulation occurs within 48 hours. For mating, a receptive female will kush (sit) for the male to mount her which he does whilst making a distinctive orgeling sound, believed to be another contributing factor to the induction of ovulation. After about a week, ovulation will have caused an increase in progesterone levels and changes in the alpaca's behaviour. If fertilisation was achieved, the female will repel subsequent attempts to mate - a behaviour known as 'spitting-off'. This is a slight misnomer as although some will spit, others may run away, scream, kick out or even try to jump out of the pen to escape the male. Spitting-off should be done after about two weeks post-mating and confirmed at four weeks. If pregnancy did not take, she will sit ready to be mated again. Spit-offs can be repeated as needed to confirm continued pregnancy.
Gestation averages eleven and a half months (355 days) with a single cria born (unpacked). Twin births are fairly rare and due to low birth weights, one or both crias may not survive. However, there have been recent cases in New Zealand of both thriving. Crias born at the Nevalea stud, Lucy and Lucas,  weighed 3.9 kg at birth and developed to normal adult weights. At the Gilead stud  the crias were born at 5.5kg (which developed normally) and 2.8kg (Timmy, pictured) which only grew to the size of a four month old. Interestingly, as a small adult he went on to sire a normal sized progeny.
The majority of cria are born in the warmest hours between 11 am and 3 pm. If the weather conditions are poor or likely to deteriorate, the dam can defer labour. Maternal instinct is to give her cria the best chance of survival as it must dry, stand and feed quickly. From birth to suckling normally takes around two hours. Experience at Te Korito Alpacas is that unpacking can be over in 15 minutes from the first signs of labour in older females but can take significantly longer, particularly for a dam's first cria or she if is overweight. Assistance is not usually required, particularly with older females who have unpacked many times. When the cria is on the ground, the dam and cria should be allowed to bond and all of the herd members to examine the new addition. The exception to this is the quick removal the epidermal membrane covering the cria's neck and thorax and disinfection of the umbilical cord stub using alcoholic iodine or chlorhexidine solution. Birth weight should be taken. Crias average 8kg at birth and should be checked on a regular basis to confirm a normal weight gain pattern.
All newborn crias will pass through a short period of post-birth recovery and move to a cush position before attempting to stand. Once standing, they will attempt to suckle from the dam. The birth to suckling sequence can be over in under a hour but most will have achieved it in under two hours. A few crias will need help as they may be reluctant to stand, attempt to suckle from the wrong dam or even head for a dark area in a stable. New mothers should be checked to ensure milk flow as waxy plugs block the nipples. It is vital that the cria consumes the colostrum as antibodies are unable to pass across the alpaca placenta. A cria should consume 10-20% of its body weight of colostrum within the first 24 hours though antibody absorbtion is greatest within the first 12 hours. Other carbohydrate components (eg. oligosaccharides and modified sugars) of the colostrum provide gut protection from pathogenic bacteria.
In nature, the dam will wean the cria after some 6 months which coincides with an increase in growth rate of the foetus she is carrying. On New Zealand farms it is at six months or 25kg body weight.
Alpacas are innately calm animals, happy to mill around people and are child safe. Although their instinct is not to be touched, patience and training can overcome this. There is a hierarchy in both male and female herds with a lead animal in each case, generally the oldest. The 'pecking order' is usually easy to work out.
Alpacas are vocal and make a surprising range of sounds. Most commonly heard is a humming sound which lets other alpacas know they are content. Mothers and cria will hum frequently to each other during the first week after birth as part of the bonding process and in some cases this may persist long after. Clucking may indicate friendly or submissive behaviour. Danger is indicated by a loud warbling sound, most often this is triggered by the sight of a dog but cats can also be the cause. Both sexes can scream when fighting but only the males produce a sound known as orgeling during the mating process. Each sound may be accompanied by elements of body language, such as raised or lowered tail, ears forward or down, or particular body postures. The combinations of sounds and body language elements make for effective transfer of information between the animals.
Alpacas do not spit in the usual sense (like llamas) but splutter air and saliva. It is mostly reserved for other alpacas during disputes or asserting authority but occasionally a person can be caught in the 'cross-fire'. When severely angered, an alpaca can regurgitate its rumen contents (a pungent acidic slurry of grass) and project it forcefully at their target. Happily, this is unusual.
Alpacas evolved to eat and digest the native grasses found at high altitude in the Andes which for most of the year are of low nutritional value. A number of unique adaptations have allowed the alpaca to thrive under these conditions. Notable amongst these is having a three-chambered rumen containing a specific bacterial flora. Waste nitrogen contained in urea is extracted from the bloodstream back into the stomach which enables increased growth rates of the bacteria. The eaten plant materials and bacteria are subsequently digested thus enabling the alpaca to extract the maximum possible protein for growth and repair. On New Zealand paddocks with lush rye grass, there is however a risk of animals putting on too much weight - see condition scoring below. Alpacas require 1.8 - 2.0% (dry weight) of their body mass per day of feed, making them more efficient consumers than sheep. Supplementary feeding is not required except as an option during the facial eczema season or putting weight back onto a thinner animal.Back to the table
Fencing for alpacas serves more to keep predators such as dogs out and alpaca groupings apart rather than keep alpacas in. Alpacas rarely challenge fences but intact males may rear up onto one when in close proximity of females and crias may try to go through a fence when they are first weaned from their mothers.
Most New Zealand fencing types are suitable, from standard 8-wire sheep fencing to post and batten, are all very acceptable. Barbed wire should not be used as it causes injuries and can get caught up in the fleece. Thick fleeces are a good insulation layer and make electric fencing largely ineffective. Moreover, electric wires can be a danger, particularly to crias. The recommended height for alpaca fencing is 1.2 metres.
Alpacas are intelligent and can be moved between paddocks with little effort or stress. Opening a gate is frequently enough to indicate that they should pass through and they can be readily trained to come on clapping or calling out, even when at a distance.
Ryegrass is by far the commonest grass found on New Zealand farms and is suitable for many herbivore species. However, as browsers and not grazers, alpacas prefer variety in the plants consumed. A number of seed suppliers (for examples, Specseed and Wesco) have formulated mixtures more suited to alpacas which include bromes, fescues, lucerne, cocksfoot, clover, plantain and others. Adding to the unsuitability of ryegrass is the issue of the Argentinian weevil which feeds on the roots of the grass causing plant death. Seed suppliers have solved this problem by the introduction of an endophyte fungus which produces alkaloids toxic to the insects. Unfortunately, these chemicals are also toxic to alpacas and result in ryegrass staggers (see the section below).
Alpacas will graze a wide variety of plants but a surprising number found growing in New Zealand paddocks and gardens are poisonous to alpacas and must be removed if within reach. The list of toxic plants is extensive but perhaps the most likely encountered are foxglove, hemlock, woody nightshade, Jerusalem cherry, Rhododendron and Azalea, Ragwort and Box hedging.
Good husbandry practices are essential to supporting the good health of alpacas. Most do not need veterinary assistance and can be performed by the owner. Veterinary advice is strongly recommended for ensuring the good health of your animals.
Please note that the information given here is for guidance only.
Alpacas generally maintain good health but as they are stoic, they will try to hide any illness. Knowing your animals makes abnormal behaviour due to illness or injury far easier to identify. Sudden and rapid weight loss is often indicative of health issues so condition scoring or weighing your alpacas on a regular basis is valuable. Moreover, visual clues such as lack energy, spending more time recumbent and reluctance to stand can indicate illness.
Notable in the treatment of alpaca illness is that very few drugs are approved for use in camelids by any national medicines regulatory body. Although a range of safe and effective drugs has now been established for use in alpacas, they are "off label", that is, not specifically tested on them. Vets tend to approximate alpaca dosage rates based on those for sheep.
Following are some of the commoner and relevant conditions affecting alpacas. Veterinary assistance must be obtained if an alpaca owner cannot quickly resolve any illness.
Unfortunately there are many livestock owners in New Zealand who have experienced this serious disease as it affects sheep, cattle, red deer, goats and especially camelids. It is caused by a toxin contained in the spores of the fungus Pithomyces chartarum. Although known worldwide, facial eczema is especially common in New Zealand due to the high percentage of toxin producing P. chartarum strains as compared to other countries. Alpacas are more sensitive than sheep to this disease, likely due of a lack of selection pressure in their native environment.
After several days of warm humid weather with night time temperatures of over 13°C, the fungus begins growing on the decaying litter at the bottom of the grass sward . On ingestion, the fungal spores release the mycotoxin sporidesmin into the gastrointestinal tract which causes severe liver and bile duct damage. Obstruction of the bile duct may occur which restricts excretion of bile pigments. This results in jaundice and an inability to excrete phylloerythrin, leading to photosensitization of the skin . Consequently, there is severe skin irritation which the animal tries to relieve by persistent rubbing of its head against objects (e.g. fences, trees etc.) which causes peeling of the skin. There is also restlessness, frequent urination, shaking, drooping and reddened ears, swollen eyes and seeking of shade to avoid sunlight. Veterinary assistance is essential in assessing these animals. An initial diagnosis is made based on these symptoms and behaviours but confirmation requires blood testing for γ-glutamyltransferase (GGT) levels.
Sporidesmin often causes permanent liver damage so support care is needed for any affected alpaca. They should be kept in the darkest area available and receive pain relief, vitamins for liver support and low protein feeds until there is clear recovery. It is notable however that if symptoms are noted then damage to the liver of the animal has already occurred. Moreover, the consumption of spores causes potentiation and subsequent ingestion of small quantities of spores can lead to severe outbreaks.
Changes to the Animal Welfare Act in May 2015 gave the Ministry of Primary Industries the ability to make regulations under the Act. As a result, MPI can better enforce the Act by mandating clear rules to protect animal welfare.
The 2018 MPI code of welfare for llamas and alpacas can be downloaded in this pdf file.
Most of the literature below can be accessed by clicking on the highlighted link. Some of the links will access the appropriate web page from which the article can be downloaded but others will immediately start downloading the full reference.
1. Rybczynski, N., Gosse, J.C., Harington, C.R., Wogelius, R.A., Hidy, A.J. and Buckley, M. (2013). Mid-Pliocene warm-period deposits in the High Arctic yield insight into camel evolution. Nature Comm. (4), Article no. 1550.
2. Registry Working Group (2012). How many Alpaca are there in NZ? New Zealand Alpaca, August, 36-37
3. Kershaw-Young, C.M., Druart, X., Vaughan , J. and Maxwell, W. M. C. (2012). β-Nerve growth factor is a major component of alpaca seminal plasma and induces ovulation in female. Reproduction, Fertility and Development, 24, 1093–1097
4. Boyd, E. (2016). Management of Facial Eczema. M.Vet. Stud., Massey University.
5. Philippe, G. (2016). Lolitrem B and Indole Diterpene Alkaloids Produced by Endophytic Fungi of the Genus Epichloë and Their Toxic Effects in Livestock. Toxins (Basel), 8(2): 47. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms2516
6. Ferguson, F. (2018). Nevalea Alpaca farm welcomes rare twins. Stuff Online, 20th February.
7. Cebra, C., Anderson, D.E., Tibary, A., Van Saun, R.J. and Johnson, L.W. (2014). Llama and Alpaca Care, Ch.16. 1st Ed., Elsevier.
8. Shim, S. (2003). Analytical Techniques for Differentiating Huacaya and Suri Alpaca Fibers. Ph.D. Thesis. Ohio State University.
9. Rogers, M. and Goffin, H. (2009). Timmy - the tiny twin's story. New Zealand Alpaca, Autumn, pp. 36-39.
10. Avila, F., Baily, M. P., Perelman, P., Das, P. J., Pontius, J., Chowdhary, R., Owens, E., Johnson, W. E., Merriwether, D. A. and Raudsepp, T. (2014). A comprehensive whole-genome integrated cytogenetic map for the alpaca (Lama pacos). Cytogenet .Genome Res., 144(3): 196-207.
11. Kadwell, M., Fernandez, M., Stanley, H. F., Baldi, R., Wheeler, J. C., Rosadio, R. and Bruford, M. W. (2001). Genetic analysis reveals the wild ancestors of the llama and the alpaca. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. 268: 2575-2584. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2001.1774
13. Presciuttini, S., Valbonesi, A., Apaza, N., Antonini, M., Huanca, T. and Renieri, C. (2010). Fleece variation in alpaca (Vicugna pacos): a two-locus model for the Suri/Huacaya phenotype. BMC Genetics, 11: 70-77
14. Feeley, N.L. (2015). Inheritance of Fibre colour in Alpacas: Identifying the Genes Involved. Ph.D. Thesis, Curtin University, Australia.
15. Sponenberg, P., Ito, S., Wakamatsu, K. and Eng, L. A. (1988). Pigment types in sheep, goats and llamas. Pigment Cell Research, 1: 414-418.
16. Hart, K. (2001). ‘The dominant white allele is the top dominant allele in the Agouti series.’ (University of Western Australia: Perth).
17. Paul, E. (2006). Alpaca colour review 2006. In ‘Australian Alpaca Association National Conference, Adelaide’. pp. 144–147.
18. Di Menna, M. E. , Smith, B. L. and Miles, C. O. (2009). A history of facial eczema (pithomycotoxicosis) research. N.Z. J. Ag. Res., 52(4): 345-376. DOI: 10.1080/00288230909510519.
19. Registry Working Group. (2015). The State of the National Registered Herd. New Zealand Alpaca, April, 4-7.
20. Foster, A., Jackson, A. and D´Alteiro, G.L. (2007). Skin diseases of South American camelids. Practice, 29: 216–223.
21. Sinclair, D.P. and Howe, M.W. (1967). Effect of thiabendazole on Pithomyces chartarum (Berk. & Curt.) M. B. Ellis. N.Z. J. Ag. Res., 11(1): 59-62. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00288233.1968.10431634
22. Mitchell, K. J., Thomas, R. G. and Clarke, R. T. J. (1961). Factors influencing the growth of Pithomyces chartarum in pasture. N.Z. J. Ag. Res., 4(5-6): 566-577. DOI: 10.1080/00288233.1961.10431614
23. Bornstein, S. and de Verdier, K. (2010). Some important Ectoparasites of Alpaca (Vicugna pacos) and Llama (Lama glama). J. Camelid Sci., 3: 49-61.
24. Cebra, C., Anderson, D.E., Tibary, A., Van Saun, R.J. and Johnson, L.W. (2014). Llama and Alpaca Care, Ch.15. 1st Ed., Elsevier.
Back to the table
1. Adams, G.P., Ratto, M.H., Silva, M.E. and Carrasco, R.A. (2016). Ovulation-inducing factor (OIF/NGF) in seminal plasma: a review and update. Reprod. Dom. Anim., 51 (Suppl. 2): 4–17.
2. Vap, L. and Bohn, A.A. (2015). Hematology of Camelids. Vet. Clin. Exot. Anim., 18: 41–49.
3. Montes, M., Quicaño, I., Quispe, R., Quispe, E and Alfonso, L. (2008). Quality characteristics of Huacaya alpaca fibre produced in the Peruvian Andean Plateau region of Huancavelica. Span. J. Ag. Res., 6(1): 33-38.
4. Jackling, F.C., Johnson, W.E. and Appleton, B.R. (2014). The Genetic Inheritance of the Blue-eyed White Phenotype in Alpacas (Vicugna pacos). J. Hered., 105(6): 941–951
5. Pérez-Cabal, M. A., Cervantes, I., Morante, R., Burgos, A., Goyache, F. and Gutiérrez, J. P. (2010). Analysis of the existence of major genes affecting alpaca fiber traits. J. Anim. Sci., 88(12): 3783–3788
6. Cecchi, T., Valbonesi, A., Passamonti, P., Gonzales, M., Antonini, M. and Renieri, C. (2011) Quantitative variation of melanins in alpaca (Lama pacos L.), It. J. Anim. Sci., 10:3, DOI: 10.4081/ijas.2011.e30