Alpaca Origins

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 [1]. The largest of these was Titanotylopus which stood an average height of 3.5 metres at the withers and like the modern camels, had a hump for fat storage. At least one genus, including Hemiauchenia, spread southwards to reach South America (during the Great American Biotic Interchange) 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. 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 [11] 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. South American populations are estimated to be upwards of 350,000 vicuña and 3.5 million alpacas.

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What makes an alpaca?

In New Zealand, it is an animal that conforms to the breed standard adopted by the Alpaca Association of New Zealand (AANZ). This standard provides a blueprint for an alpaca in terms of conformation, fleece characteristics, movement and temperament. It exists to protect the species from changes introduced by breeders based on their individual preferences and exclude genetically unsound animals from the breeding pool. Although there is no global breed standard for alpacas, many countries have their own (including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, USA (suri only), whilst others have yet to establish one.
Animals judged to meet the breed standard are eligible for registration in the pedigree database. The AANZ owns a pedigree register which is hosted at the Agricultural Business Research Institute (ABRI). This database holds comprehensive information on all registered animals along with the breeder and current owner. It is freely available for public searches but full financial membership of the Association is required to carry out transactions.
A more recent addition to the data set has been DNA certification. Whilst male alpacas are required to have their DNA submitted and recorded as part of the stud certification process, this has been extended to females. The benefit of this process is certainty of any genetic lineage and thus the integrity of the database. All DNA tested alpacas have a 'Parent Verified' symbol displayed alongside their registry entry.

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Alpaca Types


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 [10] 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 [13] in which the interaction of two unknown but linked genes control the progeny type.

Te Korito Vincent
Suri alpaca - Te Korito Vincent
Te Korito
Huacaya alpaca - Te Korito Poppy
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Alpaca Fibre

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 [2] and 2015 [19] 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
Registered animals 17,571 19,461
    
Fleece Colour (%) (%)
White 30 29
Light fawn 14 14
Mid/dark fawns 17 11
Brown shades 20 16
Black 14 16
Grey shades 5 14

A study [8] into the differences between 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 [15], [16] identified two specific genes as responsible. Later work [17] 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 [14] 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.

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Alpaca Behaviour

Alpacas are innately calm animals, happy to mill around people and are child safe. Although some animals are more relaxed about it than others, their instinct is not to be touched. Patience and training can overcome this reluctance but progress frequently depends on the character of the alpaca. There is a hierarchy in both male and female herds with a lead animal in each case, generally the oldest and always the most assertive. 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. Dams and crias will hum frequently to each other during the first week or two after birth as part of the bonding process and in some cases this may persist much longer. Clucking may indicate friendly or submissive behaviour. A snorting sound marks a warning shot to another herd member, especially when food is involved. Danger is indicated by a loud warbling sound, most often this is triggered by the sight of a dog but domestic 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 head and body postures. The combinations of sounds and body language elements make for effective transfer of information between the animals.
In a farm setting, it is normal practice to keep males and females in seperate paddocks and this includes wethers. Although not fertile, wethered males will still exhibit mating behaviours and attempt to mount females. This is not desirable as such repeated matings may cause injury to or infections in the females. Alpacas do not spit in the usual sense but splutter air and saliva - completely different from llamas. 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.

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References.

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. Alpaca Association of New Zealand, Registry Working Group (2012). How many Alpaca are there in NZ? New Zealand Alpaca, August, 36-37

8. Shim, S. (2003). Analytical Techniques for Differentiating Huacaya and Suri Alpaca Fibers. Ph.D. Thesis. Ohio State University.

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.

19. Alpaca Association of New Zealand, Registry Working Group. (2015). The State of the National Registered Herd. New Zealand Alpaca, April, 4-7.

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