Alpacas inhabit the Andean Altiplano, i.e. the Andean high plateau, preferably near wet areas. The climate of the Altiplano is severe, reaching temperatures of below 0°C during the night and 16°C during the day. Annual precipitation ranges from 400 to 700 mm. In this semi-arid region, grasses prevail. Alpacas are dependent on humans. There are reports of feral populations of llamas in South America; however, that does not seem to be the case for alpacas. (Bonacic and Franklin, 2001; "Camélidos", 2007; Vera, 2000; Wheeler, 2003)
Alpacas are the smallest of the domesticated camelid species. The weight of an adult alpaca ranges from 55 to 65 kg. Head and body length ranges from 1200 to 2250 mm, tail length ranges from 150 to 250 mm, and shoulder height from 900 to 1300 mm. has a slender body and neck. The head is small and the ears are big and pointed. The coat is either uniform or multicolor. According to “The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association” alpaca coats have up to 22 colors, from white to black and brown. In adult males the upper and lower incisors and the lower canines develop into fighting teeth or fangs that can be more than 3 cm long. In females these teeth do not develop as much as in males. Other than the difference in tooth morphology, sexual dimorphism in alpacas is minor. (Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association, 2007; Bonacic and Franklin, 2001; Franklin, 1982; "Camélidos", 2007; Nowak, 1999; "Llamas and Alpacas. Herd health", 2006)
There are two breeds of ("Camélidos", 2007): Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya are the most abundant. The body, legs, and neck of Huacaya are covered by long, crimpy hair, whereas the head and feet are covered by short hair. In Suris the hair is silkier and grows faster than in Huacayas. Additionally, in Suris the hair grows parallel to the body and has no crimp.
Alpacas are induced ovulators. They can breed year round. If the female is ready to mate, she will allow mounting and then copulation by assuming sternal recumbency shortly after intromission. The male produces a vocalization known as "orgling" during copulation. A chemical signal in the semen seems to trigger the preovulatory LH (luteinizing hormone) surge. Ovulation occurs 24 hours after mating. Once a female is pregnant, she will refuse any attempts by the male to mount her. (Adams, et al., 2005; "Llamas and Alpacas. Reproductive Physiology", 2006)
Gestation takes between 242 and 345 days. If both sexes are kept together year round, parturition occurs during the rainy season from December to March. Females can become pregnant approximately 10 days after parturition. Alpacas commonly have a single young, with birth occurring between late morning and midafternoon. At birth, alpaca weights range from 8 to 9 kg. Alpacas are precocial. Crias is the term used to designate alpaca offspring up to 6 months of age. Alpacas are weaned at 6 to 8 months. Females reach sexual maturity at 12 to 15 months, whereas males reach it around 30 to 36 months. ("Alpaca Notes No.1. Reproduction", 2000; Novoa and Wheeler, 1984; Nowak, 1999; Pollard and Pollard, 2002)
All South American camelids can crossbreed and produce fertile offspring. However, crosses between domestic and wild South American camelids, do not normally occur in nature. The product of crossing a llama and an alpaca is a Huarizo, which shows intermediate physical characteristics. The product of crossing a vicugna and an alpaca is a Pacovicuna, which shows resemblance to the vicugna. The latter has received considerable attention due to the high quality of the fiber that it produces. ("Camélidos", 2007; Wheeler, 2003)
After parturition, alpacas neither lick their young nor touch the placenta. Males stay far away from females during parturtion. Mothers watch their newborns closely but do not approach their young until they finally stand up. Then, mothers readily approach their young so that the newborns can get their first milk, or colostrum, which contains antibodies and nutrients. If newborns have problems finding the udder, mothers help them by changing their own posture. Some young approach unrelated females for milk; these unrelated females typically react by allowing them to nurse, by walking away, or by spitting. If a stranger gets close to a mother and her young, the mother spits or lunges and may refuse to leave her young.
Alpacas are social animals. They live in herds that are not only composed of other alpacas but also include other species such as llamas, goats, and sheep. Some research points to the existence of hierarchical social order in alpacas. (Bonacic and Franklin, 2001; "Situación actual de los camélidos sudamericanos en Bolivia", 2005)
According to their breeders, alpacas use most of their body parts for communication. A pose described as broadside is ascribed to males defending their territory. It is characterized by standing sideways, arched neck, rigid tail pointing up, and ears pulled back. A sign of danger in the environment elicits an alert posture. In this posture the alpaca erects its body and directs the ears to the potential source of danger. If the animal feels threatened, it will elicit an alarm call and either flee or go to investigate the source of danger. A stand off posture is taken to show dominance. It is seen when two alpacas are standing extremely close to each other. Their bodies take a rigid position, ears are pulled back, and tail and neck are held high. This posture may be accompanied by spitting, pushing, and more aggressive behaviors. Lastly, a posture called submissive crouch is seen in youngsters and low-rank individuals. In this posture, the neck is lowered to the ground and the tail is pushed onto the back. Alpacas engage in spitting when they are in distress, fearful, or to show dominance. (Ley and Ley, 2006)
Alpacas produce a broad range of vocalizations. The most common is the humming vocalization, which is produced under a variety of circumstances, such as distress or a change in the environment. A snortling vocalization is a warning signal among alpacas. Clucking is a sound mothers use with crias. Grumbling is produced to indicate food territoriality. Screeching is produced when animals become frustrated over food. Stressful situations cause the animals to elicit a loud scream. Danger causes alpacas to elicit high-pitched vocalizations known as alarm calls. Finally, orgling is produced when males are mating. (Ley and Ley, 2006)
Alpacas use communal dung piles to deposit urine and feces. As has been argued for other South American camelids, these piles may be a source for chemical communication among alpacas. ("Llamas and Alpacas. Management", 2006)
Festuca nardifolia, Deschampsia caespitosa, and Agrostis tolucensis, cushion plants Oxychloe andina, bunch grasses Festuca orthophylla, and the woody shrub Parastrephia lucida. (Castellaro, et al., 2004; Franklin, 1982)is a strict grazer. In a highland region of Chile, Castellano et al. (2004) reported that the alpaca diet was dominated by grasses such as
There are no reports on specific alpaca predators in their native range. Alpacas, however, could potentially be eaten by the same carnivores that attack their wild close relatives, i.e. guanacos and vicugnas. These predators are domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), Andean foxes (Lycalopex culpaeus), Andean condors (Vultur gryphus), pumas (Puma concolor), and wild cats (Leopardus colocolo and Leopardus jacobitus). Breeders in areas outside the alpaca native range identify coyotes (Canis latrans), wolves (Canis lupus), large cats, and dogs as predators. Most predation will be on young, sick, or old animals, as alpacas are vigilant and will defend themselves with their hooves and spitting their foul stomach contents into the face of a predator. (Cumming and Cumming, 2004; Koford, 1957; Young and Franklin, 2004)
Due to some of their morphological characteristics such as padded soles and light weight, South American camelids do not compact the soil or destroy the vegetation in their habitat. Moreover, they feed on the natural forbs and grasses in the ecosystem. In brief, these animals are ideal livestock for low impact grazing. ("Proyecto Camélidos", 2006)
Fiber is the main product obtained from alpacas. The coat is clipped once a year and the fiber has been described as the finest. The fiber is soft and can absorb up to 15% of ambient humidity without altering it. Additionally, the fiber is warmer and stronger than wool. Other products that can be obtained from alpacas are meat, skin, and dung. The meat has as higher protein content and lower fat content than cow or sheep meat. The meat of South American camelids does not transmit diseases such as Trichinosis or Cysticercosis that are commonly caused by eating pork or wild game products. In spite of the benefits of alpaca meat, its commercialization is extremely rare. Another product obtained from alpacas is their skin, which is used for the manufacturing of rugs, wall hangings, purses, shoes, toys, and apparel. Dung is used either as a fertilizer or as fuel. The alpaca is of extreme importance for the economy of South American herders. The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture reports that Peru and Bolivia have 99% of the alpaca population. Breeding occurs primarily in poor farm communities. ("Camélidos. Panorama de la cadena", 2002; "Camélidos", 2007)
There is no report of a negative impact of this species on human economy.
After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores to South America, alpaca populations were extremely reduced and displaced to the highest regions of the Andes. Thus, alpacas and llamas were replaced by sheep and goat brought from Europe. Nowadays, populations of alpacas are not endangered but are still relegated to the highest regions of the Andes. It has been estimated that the world population of alpacas is approximately 3.5 millions. Peru holds 87% of the alpaca population, followed by Bolivia with 9.5%. Most of the alpacas reared in South America are under the control of traditional pastoralists who in most cases keep llamas and alpacas together. This situation is problematic since alpacas and llamas can crossbreed. Wheeler (2005) touches on that problem and states that the hybridization between llamas and alpacas, which started after the conquest and continues today, is making alpacas an endangered species since its genetic make-up is being compromised by crossbreeds with the llama. ("Camélidos", 2007; Novoa and Wheeler, 1984; Wheeler, 2005)
Studies on different archeological sites in South America suggest that alpacas were domesticated approximately 6000 years ago. The origin of this species has been a matter of debate. Apparently, intense postconquest hybridization between llamas and alpacas has played a major role in obscuring the alpaca's origin. In 2001, however, Kadwel et al. shed light on the controversy when they found through genetic analysis that vicugnas are the wild ancestors of alpacas. After this publication, it was suggested that Lama pacos be changed to Vicugna pacos, although this change has not yet been widely accepted. (Kadwell, et al., 2001; Wheeler, 2003)
Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Alexandra Castillo-Ruiz (author), Michigan State University, Barbara Lundrigan (editor, instructor), Michigan State University.
Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.
living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.
living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.
living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.
uses sound to communicate
living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
union of egg and spermatozoan
an animal that mainly eats leaves.
A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.
An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.
ovulation is stimulated by the act of copulation (does not occur spontaneously)
referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.
the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.
having more than one female as a mate at one time
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.
associates with others of its species; forms social groups.
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.
A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.
A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.
A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.
uses sight to communicate
reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.
breeding takes place throughout the year
young are relatively well-developed when born
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