Not long ago, Alpacas were virtually unknown in the United States. In 1984 the first alpacas were imported to the US from Central America and it didn’t take long for these curious and gentle animals to find their way into the hearts of animal lovers, and onto the screens of YouTube and social media. Today it is hard to walk through a store without seeing their unique form printed on water bottles, pillows, clothing, and as stuffed animals. Pop culture has even brought about the Alpaca-corn to children’s cartoons and novelty toys. Today we'll discuss the rich history of the alpaca, the types of alpacas, and their uses to kick off our "Alpaca 101" blog series.
6,000 years ago, alpacas were first domesticated by the Incas in the Andean plateau and mountains of South America. They were a central part of the culture where their soft-as-cashmere fleece was reserved for use by royalty. When the Spanish conquered the Incan civilization, the alpacas were almost completely decimated, saved only by their importance and their ability to live at altitudes and in conditions other life could not survive.
In the mid-1800’s the wonderful fleece of the alpaca was rediscovered and regained prominence. In 1827, Simon Bolivar signed rulings that protected camelids in South America. This included alpaca, llama, guanaco, and vicuna. Since then, camelids have been a vital resource to South America. They are so vital that only 3,000 alpacas have been exported from South America and account for only .1% of the alpacas in the world. When they were imported to the US in 1984, a frenzy hit and alpaca fever is still alive today
Is it a sheep? A goat? A deer?
An alpaca is considered a camelid. Yes, they belong to the same group as the hump-backed desert loving camels. There are two types of alpacas, the huacaya and the suri.
The Huacaya, pronounced “wah-KI-ya”, is the type that most frequently comes to mind. It has short, dense, and crimpy fiber. They are often said to look like teddy bears. Another comical description is “long necked sheep”.
The Suri, pronounced “surrey”, has long, silky locks that cling together in pencil-like locks. It is far less common than the Huacaya and makes up only around 20% of the alpaca population.
Both types of alpaca have the following things in common:
- Soft padded feet
- Their hair is called fleece
- Three stomach compartments, making them a pseudo-ruminant vs a true ruminant
- They are compact in size with the average wither height being 36” and the average weight being 150 pounds
- They have an average lifespan of 20 years
- They can adapt to any climate and can do well on small acreage
- They do not have upper front teeth
Hopefully this has answered some questions as to what an alpaca is and how it came to the United States. Next week’s post will be about the primary uses of alpacas. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for updates and excitement on the farm!
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