With enormous eyes, a sweet nature and abundant, super soft wool, there is no question alpacas are charming animals, made even more appealing by the fact that they are relatively uncommon in the world at large. For quick understanding, they can be compared to long-necked sheep for their general morphology and use. However, there are many fascinating facts surrounding these likeable creatures.
Huacayas and Suris
There are two types of alpacas: Huacayas, which are more numerous worldwide, and Suris which make up around 10% of the population. Huacayas have crimped fiber that stands perpendicular to their skin so they look fluffy, like a teddy bear. Suris have long bundles of locks that hang straight down from their skin, and they usually have a part along their back. Both varieties are used for their remarkable fiber, with Suri fiber having a slightly lower scale relief and a slippier texture than Huacaya when observed under a microscope.
Alpacas were originally American?!
Many are surprised to discover that Camelids actually evolved in North America during the Eocene epoch. Some Camelids that migrated across a temporary land bridge ended up in the Middle East and evolved into the camels, both the two-humped Bactrian and the single humped Dromedary. A small number of Bactrian camels (about 300 to 700) are still located in a limited area in the Trans-Altai Gobi Desert and are considered a wild population. Other Camelids migrated to South America. Llamas were then domesticated from wild guanacos while alpacas were domesticated from wild vicuñas. Incredibly, alpacas are one of the few species alive today that lives alongside their wild ancestor.
Pre-Columbian cultures utilized the fiber of both the wild camelids and the domesticated versions, primarily alpaca. Because ancient textiles were carefully stored by some cultures in sand on the coast of Peru, for example, scientists today can observe the fineness and quality of fiber hundreds of years old using the latest technology. This has unlocked miraculous clues about the original herds, not to mention the spectacular skill and artistry of textile artists from so long ago.
Unfortunately, in their quest for gold, Spanish conquistadores decimated the advanced herds the ancient peoples worked so methodically to create in South America. Alpaca mummies studied by Dr. Jane Wheeler in the U.S. revealed that only recently have modern breeders been able to achieve the breeding goals of fineness ancient peoples reached. The ancient cultures were focused on achieving the finest and most usable fiber for textiles, which were absolutely central to their way of life. In fact, vicuña and alpaca fiber and textiles were far more valuable to these societies than gold.
Huacaya alpacas graze in South America on thealtiplano
Alpaca fiber is one of the most remarkable natural fibers on earth in terms of soft hand, usability and comfort. Alpacas, both Suris and Huacayas, must be shorn once a year to ensure their health and comfort in hot weather months. Easily processed in textile manufacturing facilities and durable in garments, it is becoming more and more popular every day worldwide. Many European luxury designers have offered a small selection of alpaca garments in their winter or men’s golf collections for decades.
Now, alpaca fiber is being used in a wider range of garments and in multi-season items with the introduction of blends and ultra lightweights that are cool in summer. With more and more alpacas being raised outside their native South America, a discerning and growing consumer public is becoming aware of alpaca as a viable high-end material for multiple textile applications.
Modern Farm Superstars
Easy keepers, alpacas are small in stature and relatively docile. Alpacas must never be kept alone –they are herd animals are happy and comfortable among others of their kind. Being prey animals, they are curious but exceedingly cautious and act as a collective herd in many situations, approaching cautiously and tentatively when met with new people and animals. Because of their alert natures, they are often kept with sheep as somewhat of a first responder in the domestic animal world, providing an alarm call if threatened.
Handling alpacas is simple and because they are relatively small, about 150 lbs. or less. They are compact enough for women to handle on their own, making them very popular. Women in the United States alone are increasing their presence in agriculture significantly; more than 30% of farm operators are now women and this demographic is growing by percentage points every year.
Alpacas are also intelligent, curious and trainable. Many alpaca owners will readily tell you how much joy their alpacas bring them as individuals. In addition, many fiber artists report a deep satisfaction from utilizing the superb wool their valued companions grow in their work.
Alpacas are kept on ranches in many countries in the world, with Peru leading the pack in South American and countries such as the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand also keeping significant numbers. Other countries are currently building organizations and infrastructure, such as Scotland and Norway.
Alpacas are also used as therapy animals. Many thriving companies in the U.S. and Europe bring alpacas for visits to nursing homes, schools and to programs working with disabled or disadvantaged children. Often, the alpaca visits are the highlight of the week, offering a calm and gentle break from the regular routine as well as a long, soft neck to hug.
As alpacas become more and more well known across the world, their popularity is growing for a variety of reasons. As livestock, as hobby farm pets and as therapy animals, they shine. However, the most important role alpacas fulfill is undoubtedly as the source of some of the most spectacular natural fiber available on earth.
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