|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). At 35 million years ago, a goat-sized intermediate form (Poebrotherium) had evolved which then diversified into at least 20 genera . At least one genus 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. Native North American camels were likely wiped out at the time humans migrated from Asia.
The vicuñas and guanacos were domesticated several thousand years ago to produce the llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Lama pacos) respectively. Although distributed over much of South America, 90% of the alpaca population is found in Peru at altitudes between 3000 and 4500 metres. Temperatures at these altitudes may range between -20° and 30°C. There are upwards of 350,000 vicuña and 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands.
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. The wool is used for superior knitted and woven products. Suri alpacas have smoother, finer fibres that fall parallel to the body in long well-defined locks. It has a silky sheen with great visual appeal and has found markets in high end fabrics. Both alpaca types have a life span of around 20 years.Back to the table
Alpacas are mainly farmed for their superior wool fibre for which there is a significant worldwide demand. The wool is essentially free of lanolin and harvested by shearing once per year. It 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 evolved at high altitude so it is unsurprising that the fibre contains air-filled hollows improving its thermal insulation properties.
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. A 2012 New Zealand review  of the registered huacaya alpaca population showed that 30% were white and 31% fawn shades. Brown shades made up 20% of numbers and black 14%. The various grey varieties made up only 5% of the total although this proportion is likely increasing due to market demand. Colour distribution in the suri population was similar with 37% white, 32% fawn shades, 17% brown and 11% black The grey varieties made up only 3%.
Alpaca fibre can be 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 readily dyed.
Peru alone produces 80% of global fibre at 6,000 tonnes per year (2015). Alpaca numbers are growing rapidly in other countries (notably China) but it will be many years until there is any significant change to fibre market dynamics.
Female alpacas undergo puberty at around six months though matings frequently fail . It is common practice in New Zealand to start matings towards 2 years old when there is physical maturity. A female may breed until about 15 years old. Male alpacas may reach reproductive age at 18 months though the testes are not mature until 3 years of age.
Camelids 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 be part of the picture, it is now known that a stimulating protein 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 by spitting at him. Pregnancy can be confirmed after about two weeks and four weeks post-mating when the female will continue to spit the male off. Failing this, she will sit ready to be mated again.
Gestation is approximately eleven and a half months (355 days) with a single cria born (unpacked). Twin births are rare and due to low birth weights, one or both do not usually survive. However, there was a recent case in New Zealand of both surviving . 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 as maternal instinct is to give the best chance of survival to the cria as it must dry, stand and suckle 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, especially in 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 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. 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 sialylated 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 an innately calm animal, happy to mill around people and are child safe. Although they don't like to be touched, training can overcome this reluctance. 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 animals and make a range of sounds. Most alpacas will make a humming sound which let other alpacas know they are content. Mothers and cria will hum frequently to each other during the first week after birth as part of bonding and this may persist long after. Clucking may indicate friendly or submissive behavior. Danger is indicated by a loud warbling sound, most often this is triggered by the appearance of a dog but cats can also be the cause. Each sound may be accompanied by elements of their body language, such as raised or lowered tail, ears forward or down, or particular body postures. Machos will produce a scream when fighting and also a particular sound when mating known as orgeling.
Alpacas do not spit in the usual sense (like llamas) but normally splutter air and some 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 which due to specific bacterial flora and recycling of urea from the blood back into the stomach, is able to extract the maximum protein yield from the bacteria and greatest breakdown of eaten material. On New Zealand paddocks, there is 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. As such, 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 be 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, here and here) have formulated mixtures more suited to alpacas which include bromes, fescues, lucerne, cocksfoot, clover, plantain and others. Adding to the unsuitability of ryegrass is that the Argentinian weevil feeds on the roots of the grass causing plant death. Seed suppliers resolved this problem by the introduction of an endophyte fungus that produces alkaloids toxic to the insects. Unfortunately, these same alkaloids are toxic to alpacas and result in ryegrass staggers (see section below).
Alpacas are opportunistic browsers and will try a wide variety of plants. However, a remarkable number found growing in 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/Azalea, Ragwort and Box hedging.
Alpacas generally maintain good health but as they are stoic animals, they will hide any illness. It is therefore important that alpaca owners know their animals well so that any abnormal behaviour can be quickly recognised and investigated. Of equal importance are husbandry measures to support their good health and these are discussed below.
Notable in the treatment of illness in alpacas is that relatively few drugs are approved for use in camelids by the US FDA or any other national medicines regulatory body. Although a range of safe and effective drugs has now been established for use in alpacas, most are completely "off label". Vets tend to approximate alpaca dosage rates based on those for sheep.
Please note that the information given here is for guidance only.
Veterinary advice is strongly recommended for ensuring the good health of your animals.
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. A sick alpaca is likely to lack energy and spend more time recumbent and be reluctant to stand.
Unfortunately, there are many livestock owners in New Zealand who have experienced this serious disease in their animals. It is caused by a toxin contained in the spores of the fungus Pithomyces chartarum. It mainly affects ruminant species and although it is known worldwide, facial eczema is especially common in New Zealand due to the high percentage of toxin-producing 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 and results in jaundice and failure to excrete phylloerythrin, leading to photosensitization of the skin . As a result, 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 the 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 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 here.
Most of the literature cited in the text can be accessed by clicking on the appropriate link below.
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.
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.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.