Alpaca

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Alpaca
Rose Hill Farm Alpaca 01.jpg
Domesticated
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Camelidae
Genus: Vicugna
Species: V. pacos
Binomial name
Vicugna pacos
(Linnaeus, 1758)
World map showing highlighted range covering portions of Peru and Bolivia
Alpaca range

The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid. Alpacas are similar to llamas, and are often confused with them. The two animals are closely related, and can successfully cross-breed. They are also closely related to the vicuña, which is believed to be the alpaca's wild ancestor, and to the guanaco.

There are two breeds of alpaca; the Suri alpaca and the Huacaya alpaca.

Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, western Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) above sea level, throughout the year.[1] Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, they were not bred to be beasts of burden, but were bred specifically for their fiber. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, similar to wool. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks, coats and bedding in other parts of the world. The fiber comes in more than 52 natural colors as classified in Peru, 12 as classified in Australia and 16 as classified in the United States.

Alpacas have several different components to how they behave. They depend on their body communication to get their point across when they are threatened or happy. They spit when they are in distress, fearful, or to show dominance.[2] Male alpacas tend to behave more aggressively than females, and they try to establish dominance of their herd group.

In the textile industry, "alpaca" primarily refers to the hair of Peruvian alpacas, but more broadly it refers to a style of fabric originally made from alpaca hair, but now often made from similar fibers, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even high-quality wool. In trade, distinctions are made between alpacas and the several styles of mohair and luster.[3]

An adult alpaca generally is between 81–99 centimetres (32–39 in) in height at the shoulders (withers). They usually weigh 48–84 kilograms (106–185 lb).

Background[edit]

Guanacos (wild parent species of llamas) near Torres del Paine, Chile

Alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years. The Moche people of northern Peru often used alpaca images in their art.[4] There are no known wild alpacas, and its closest living relative, the vicuña (also native to South America), are believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca.[5] The alpaca is larger than the vicuña, but smaller than the other camelid species.

Along with camels and llamas, alpacas are classified as camelids. Of the various camelid species, the alpaca and vicuña are the most valuable fiber-bearing animals: the alpaca because of the quality and quantity of its fiber, and the vicuña because of the softness, fineness and quality of its coat.[3]

Alpacas are too small to be used as pack animals. Instead, they are bred exclusively for their fiber and meat. Alpaca meat was once considered a delicacy by Andean inhabitants. Because of the high price commanded by alpaca on the growing North American market, illegal alpaca smuggling had become a growing problem as of 2005.[6] In 2014, a company was formed claiming to be the first to export US-derived alpaca products to China.[7]

Alpacas and llamas can successfully cross-breed. The resulting offspring are called huarizo, which are valued for their unique fleece and gentle dispositions.

Evolution[edit]

The family of Camelidaes first arose in Americas 40–45 million years ago during the Eocene period from the common ancestor, Protylopus.[8] 30 million years after the Family first came to be it diverged into Camelini and Lamini, the tribes took different migratory patterns to cross into what we now know as Asia and into South America respectively. Although the Camelids became extinct in North America around 3 million years ago their cousins in the South flourished into the tribes we see today.[9] It wasn't until 2–5 million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch that the genus Hemiauchenia of the tribe Lamini split into Palaeolama and Lama, the latter would then split again into Lama and Vicugna upon migrating down to South America.[8]

The remains of the Vicugna vicugna and Lama guanaco have been found throughout Peru for around 12,000 years. Their domesticated counterparts, the llama and alpacas have been found mummified in the Moquegua valley in the south of Peru dating back 900 to 1000 years. Mummies found in this region have allowed for two breeds of alpacas. More precise analysis of bone and teeth of these mummies have allowed some researchers to posit that alpacas were domesticated from the Vicugna vicugna. Other research, considering the behavioral and morphological characteristics of alpacas and their wild counterparts, seem to indicate that alpacas could find their origins in Lama guanicoe as well as Vicugna vicugna, or even a hybrid of both.[8]

Mitochondrial DNA paints a different picture for the origins of the alpaca. mtDNA research shows that alpacas are descendants of the Vicugna vicugna, not of the Lama guanicoe. Even leading to movements for the alpaca to be reclassified to Vicugna pacos.[8]

Breeds[edit]

Alpacas come in two breeds Suri and Huacaya. For alpacas, breeds don't represent conventional, or European classifications, for breeds. Instead of taking into account a stud book or registry, alpacas are classified by their fibers. Even back to the earliest found alpacas these distinctions in fibers can be isolated at fleece diameter at 23.6 um and 17.9 um. Presently however these fibers are more on the order of 31.2 um and 26.8 um.[10]

Huacaya alpacas have a denser fleece than their Suri counterparts. They are also the most common kind of alpaca found, about 90% of the population.[10] The Huacaya alpaca is thought to have originated in post-colonial Peru. This is due to their thicker fleece which makes them more suited to survive in the higher altitudes of the Andes after being pushed into the highlands of Peru when conquistadors began taking over.[11]

Suri alpacas represent a smaller portion of the total alpaca population, around 10%,[10] since their fleece is longer and less dense. They are thought to have been more prevalent in pre-Columbian Peru since they could be kept at a lower altitude where a thicker fleece not needed for extenuating weather conditions.[11]

Behavior[edit]

Closeup of an alpaca's face

Alpacas are social herd animals that live in family groups consisting of a territorial alpha male, females and their young. Alpacas warn the herd about intruders by making sharp, noisy inhalations that sound like a high-pitched bray. The herd may attack smaller predators with their front feet, and can spit and kick. Their aggression towards members of the canid family (coyotes, foxes, dogs etc.) is exploited when alpacas are used as guard llamas for guarding sheep.[12]

Alpacas are can sometimes be aggressive, but they can also be very gentle, intelligent, and extremely observant. For the most part, alpacas are very quiet but male alpacas are more energetic in a sense where they get involved in fighting with other alpacas.[13] When they prey, they are cautious but also nervous when they feel any type of threat. They can feel threatened when a person or another alpaca comes up from behind them.[14]

Alpacas set their own boundaries of "personal space" within their families and groups.[15] They make a hierarchy in some sense, and each alpaca is aware of the dominant animals in each group.[13] Body language is the key to their communication. It helps to maintain their order. One example of their body communication includes a pose named broadside where their ears are pulled back and they stand sideways which is used when male alpacas are defending their territory.[2]

When they are young, they tend to follow larger objects and to sit near or under the large objects, for example a baby alpaca with its mother. This can also apply when an alpaca passes by any other older alpaca.[15]

Spitting[edit]

Not all alpacas spit, but all are capable of doing so. "Spit" is somewhat euphemistic; occasionally the projectile contains only air and a little saliva, although alpacas commonly bring up acidic stomach contents (generally a green, grassy mix) and project it onto their chosen targets. Spitting is mostly reserved for other alpacas, but an alpaca will also occasionally spit at a human.

Spitting can result in what is called "sour mouth". Sour mouth is characterized by a loose-hanging lower lip and a gaping mouth. This is caused by the stomach acids and unpleasant taste of the contents as they pass out of the mouth.[citation needed]

Alpacas can spit for several reasons. A female alpaca spits when she knows shes not interested in a male alpaca. Both genders of alpaca keep others away from their food or anything they have their eyes on. Spitting can also happen when an alpaca is trying to warn any threats away. But there are also those alpacas that will spit just to spit whenever they feel like it. Most give a slight warning before they just go ahead and spit. They basically blow air out and raise their heads where it looks like their ears are pinned and make a little noise then there comes the saliva.[15]

Alpacas can spit out to ten feet if they need to, for example if the other animal does not back off then it will throw up its stomach insides resulting in a lot of spit. Alpacas, themselves, actually do not like the taste of their food so they just leave their mouths wide open until it’s all gone.[16]

A couple signs of stress which can lead to their spitting habits include: humming, a wrinkle under their eye, drooling, rapid breathing, and stomping their feet. When an alpaca is showing any sign of interest or alertness, they tend to sniff their surroundings, watches closely, and they even just stand quietly and stare.[16]

When it comes to reproduction, they spit because it is a response triggered by the progesterone levels being increased which is associated with the ovulation.[17]

Hygiene[edit]

Alpacas are in general very organized and neat. When they defecate they usually designate one place, even if they need to walk farther away. They use a communal dung pile.[18] Their waste is collected and used as garden fertilizer or even natural fertilizer.[2]

Another factor that goes into alpaca hygiene[19] is their tooth care. When observing the teeth of an alpaca, it is a good way to tell if they have a healthy digestive system. Alpacas have their full set of adult teeth by the age of six. Male alpacas have 32 teeth and female alpacas have 30 teeth. Males have those extra two teeth because they are called their fighting teeth and female alpacas do not have those unless they are rare species. Alpacas have six lower incisors which help them bite off plants to chew. They do not have any upper incisors, but their mouths are lined up perfectly so that they have the ability to eat grass, hay, and plants.

There are warning signs to when an alpaca may have dental hygiene problems. One way to tell is if they take a while to chew their grass or hay or when they are eating, they continue to spill all their food and not keep it in their mouths. Another sign can be the poor body condition and if their cheeks are pushed in.

Alpacas use a communal dung pile, where they do not graze. This behaviour tends to limit the spread of internal parasites. Generally, males have much tidier, and fewer dung piles than females, which tend to stand in a line and all go at once. One female approaches the dung pile and begins to urinate and/or defecate, and the rest of the herd often follows.

Because of their preference for using a dung pile, some alpacas have been successfully house-trained.[citation needed]

Sounds[edit]

Suri alpacas

Alpacas make a variety of sounds they make to communicate what they are thinking or feeling with each other.[20] They can get triggered by almost anything because they are so cautious about their surroundings.

  • Humming: When alpacas are born, the mother and its child hum constantly. They also hum as a sign of distress, especially when they are separated from their herd. A couple other reasons alpacas will hum is if they are curious, happy, worried or cautious.
  • Snorting: Alpacas snort when another alpaca is invading their space.
  • Grumbling: Alpacas grumble to warn each other for example when one has gotten into their space and coming too close. It sounds like they are gurgling.
  • Clucking: Similar to a hen’s cluck, alpacas cluck when a mother is concerned for her cria or male alpacas will cluck to signal friendly behavior.[2]
  • Screaming: Their screams are extremely deafening and loud. They will scream when they are not handled right or when they are being attacked by a potential enemy.
  • Screeching: Bird-like cry, presumably intended to terrify the opponent. This sound is typically used by a male alpaca when they are in a fight over who will dominate. When female screeches, it is more of a growl when they are angry.
  • Orgling: This sound is made when alpacas are mating.

Reproduction[edit]

Females are induced ovulators;[21] the act of mating and the presence of semen causes them to ovulate. Females usually conceive after just one breeding, but occasionally do have trouble conceiving. Artificial insemination is technically difficult, but it can be accomplished. Alpacas conceived from artificial insemination are not registerable with the Alpaca Registry.[22]

A male is usually ready to mate for the first time between two and three years of age. A female alpaca may fully mature (physically and mentally) between 10 and 24 months. It is not advisable to allow a young female to be bred until she is mature, and has reached two-thirds of her mature weight. Over-breeding a young female before conception is possibly a common cause of uterine infections. As the age of maturation varies greatly between individuals, it is usually recommended that novice breeders wait until females are 18 months of age or older before initiating breeding.[23]

Alpacas can breed at any time but it is more difficult to breed in the winter. Most breed during Autumn or late Spring.[24] Females mate based on their weight and age but since owners cannot necessarily weigh their alpacas, they breed when they are a year old. The most popular way to have alpacas mate is pen mating.. Pen mating is when they grab both the female and the desired male into a pen. Another way is paddock mating where one male alpaca is let loose in the paddock with several female alpacas.[24]

In some countries, they usually do not mate until they approach the age of 2 years old. Alpacas, unlike other animals, do not have a menstrual or a seasonal cycle. They just have these induced ovulators which means that the eggs are released in reaction to mating.

Most pregnancies are implanted in the left uterine horn. This makes it so that the embryos must travel from the right to the left uterine horn. Rejection of the male Is a good sign that there is a chance of pregnancy. There is not any external body appearance that shows a woman alpaca pregnant. [17]

The gestation period is, on average, 11.5 months, and usually results in a single offspring, or cria. Twins are rare, occurring about once per 1000 deliveries.[25] Cria are generally between 15 and 19 pounds, and are standing 30 to 90 minutes after birth.[26] After a female gives birth, she is generally receptive to breeding again after about two weeks. Crias may be weaned through human intervention at about six months old and 60 pounds, but many breeders prefer to allow the female to decide when to wean her offspring; they can be weaned earlier or later depending on their size and emotional maturity.

The average lifespan of an alpaca is between 15–20 years, and the longest-lived alpaca on record is 27 years.[27]

Habitat and lifestyle[edit]

Alpacas can be found all over South America. Since they are currently domesticated, they are no longer living anywhere in the wild. They typically live in temperate conditions in the mountains with high altitudes, but after people started to take them in as pets they adapted to any climate and area. A prime example of this adaptation is the fact that they were used to living high up in the mountains with cooler weather but now they are living in places where it is hot and dry.[28]

They are easy to care for since they are not limited to a specific type of environment. Animals such as, flamingos, condors, spectacled bears, mountain lions, coyotes, llamas, and sheep live near this amazing animal when they are in their natural habitat. People who own Alpacas tend to keep them in herds alongside sheep.[29] The main reason why Alpacas and sheep are kept together is so the alpacas can protect the sheep when they are eating grass throughout the day. It is interesting how the alpacas chase the predators away to insure the sheep’s safety.

Today most alpacas are kept on farms for their fiber.Since they are friendly and easy to maintain, statistics have shown an increase in the number of people taking them in as pets rather than strictly using them as a profit.[30] Although they are kept as pets they still need a big enough area for them to roam around. They like to drink a lot of water in order to keep cool in those hot and dry weather conditions that they were not originally used to.[31]

Population[edit]

Since alpacas are native to Peru, they currently have the largest population of alpacas in the world. About eighty-seven percent of the 3,685,516 million Alpaca population inhabits Peru.[32] Their population declined drastically after the Spanish conquest where they invaded the Andes mountains in 1532, after they arrived they murdered 98% of these animals and also brought over diseases that killed them.[33]

As a result of this invasion the Alpacas were forced to move higher into the mountains and ended up residing there for good. Although this invasion almost completely wiped out their population, they were rediscovered sometime during the 19th century by Europeans. After finding use for alpacas they became important to societies during the industrial revolution.[34]

Today, alpacas can be found all over Australia. While they might not have a very large population, they do have one of the largest breeding farms. Their population was introduced when they were smuggled out of South America in order to use their fiber to contribute to the wool market in Australia.[35]

Diet[edit]

(video) An Alpaca chewing

Alpacas chew their food which ends up being mixed with their cud and saliva and then they swallow it. They bring up the cud and chew it while they are resting. They end up spending a third of their day just looking and collecting their food. Alpacas usually eat 1.5%[36] of its body weight for normal growth. They mainly need pasture grass, hay, or silage but some may also need supplemental energy and protein foods and they will also normally try to chew on almost anything (e.g. empty bottle). Most alpaca ranchers rotate their feeding grounds so the grass can regrow and fecal parasites may die before reusing the area. Pasture grass is a great source of protein. When seasons change, the grass loses or gains more protein. For example, in the spring, the pasture grass has about 20% protein while in the summer, it only has 6%.[37] They need more energy supplements in the winter to produce body heat and warmth. They get their fiber from hay or from long stems which provides them with vitamin E. Green grass contains vitamin A and E.

Alpacas can eat natural unfertilized grass; however, ranchers can also supplement grass with low-protein grass hay. To provide selenium and other necessary vitamins, ranchers will feed their domestic alpacas a daily dose of grain.[38] Free-range alpacas may obtain the necessary vitamins in their native grazing ranges.

Digestion[edit]

Alpacas are pseudoruminants and, like other camelids, have a three-chambered stomach; combined with chewing cud, this three-chambered system allows maximum extraction of nutrients from low-quality forages.[39]

Alpacas will chew their food in a figure eight motion, swallow the food, and then pass it into one of the stomach's chambers. The first and second chambers (called C1 and C2) are where the fermentation process begins digestion. The alpaca will further absorb nutrients and water in the first part of the third chamber. The end of the third chamber (called C3) is where the stomach secretes acids to digest food, and is the likely place where an alpaca will have ulcers, if stressed. The alpaca digestive system is very sensitive and must be kept healthy and balanced.[40]

Poisonous plants[edit]

Many plants are poisonous to the alpaca, including the bracken fern, fireweed, oleander, and some azaleas. In common with similar livestock, others include: acorns, African rue, agave, amaryllis, autumn crocus, bear grass, broom snakeweed, buckwheat, ragweed, buttercups, calla lily, orange tree foliage, carnations, castor beans, and many others.[41]

History of the scientific name[edit]

Shorn alpacas

The relationship between alpacas and vicuñas was disputed for many years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the four South American lamoid species were assigned scientific names. At that time, the alpaca was assumed to be descended from the llama, ignoring similarities in size, fleece and dentition between the alpaca and the vicuña. Classification was complicated by the fact that all four species of South American camelid can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.[42] The advent of DNA technology made a more accurate classification possible.

In 2001, the alpaca genus classification changed from Lama pacos to Vicugna pacos, following the presentation of a paper[5] on work by Dr. Jane Wheeler et al. on alpaca DNA to the Royal Society showing the alpaca is descended from the vicuña, not the guanaco.

Fiber[edit]

A selection of products made from alpaca fiber
Traditional alpaca clothing at the Otavalo Artisan Market in the Andes of Ecuador
A knitted scarf made from alpaca wool

Alpaca fleece is a lustrous and silky natural fiber. While similar to sheep’s wool, it is warmer, not prickly, and bears no lanolin, which makes it hypoallergenic.[43][44] Without lanolin, it does not repel water. It is also soft and luxurious. In physical structure, alpaca fiber is somewhat akin to hair, being very glossy.[3] The preparing, carding, spinning, weaving and finishing process of alpaca is very similar to the process used for wool. Alpaca fiber is also flame-resistant, and meets the US Consumer Product Safety Commission's standards.[45]

Alpacas are typically sheared once per year in the spring. Each shearing produces approximately five to ten pounds (2.2–4.5 kilograms) of fiber per alpaca. An adult alpaca might produce 50 to 90 ounces (1420–2550 grams) of first-quality fiber as well as 50 to 100 ounces (1420–2840 grams) of second- and third-quality fiber.

Working with the fiber can be difficult and requires skilled craftsmen in order to knit it properly. Handmade alpaca garments are generally rare, as most are machine made, and those that are truly well done can last for an extremely long time. As the fiber is soft and luxurious it is the fabric of choice of some high end alpaca knitwear and sweater companies.

Prices[edit]

The price for American alpacas can range from US$50 for a castrated male (gelding) to US$500,000 for the highest of champions in the world, depending on breeding history, sex, and color.[46] According to an academic study,[47] though, the higher prices sought for alpaca breeding stock are largely speculative and not supported by market fundamentals, given the low inherent returns per head from the main end product, alpaca fiber, and prices into the $100s per head rather than $10,000s would be required for a commercially viable fiber production herd.[48] Breeding stock prices in Australia have fallen from A$10,000–30,000 head in 1997 to an average of A$3,000–4,000 today.

It is possible to raise up to 25 alpacas per hectare (10 alpacas per acre),[49] as they have a designated area for waste products and keep their eating area away from their waste area. However, this ratio differs from country to country and is highly dependent on the quality of pasture available (in many desert locations it is generally only possible to run one to three animals per acre due to lack of suitable vegetation). Fiber quality is the primary variant in the price achieved for alpaca wool; in Australia, it is common to classify the fiber by the thickness of the individual hairs and by the amount of vegetable matter contained in the supplied shearings.

Livestock[edit]

A Bolivian man and his alpaca

Alpacas need to eat 1–2% of body weight per day, so about two 60 lb (27 kg) bales of grass hay per month per animal. When formulating a proper diet for alpacas, water and hay analysis should be performed to determine the proper vitamin and mineral supplementation program. Two options are to provide free choice salt/mineral powder, or feed a specially formulated ration. Indigenous to the highest regions of the Andes, this harsh environment has created an extremely hardy animal, so only minimal housing and predator fencing are needed.[50] The alpaca’s three-chambered stomachs allow for extremely efficient digestion. There are no viable seeds in the manure, because alpacas prefer to only eat tender plant leaves, and will not consume thick plant stems; therefore, alpaca manure does not need composting to enrich pastures or ornamental landscaping. Nail and teeth trimming is needed every six to twelve months, along with annual shearing.

Similar to ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, alpacas have only lower teeth at the front of their mouths; therefore, they do not pull grass up by the roots. Rotating pastures is still important, though, as alpacas have a tendency to regraze an area repeatedly. Alpacas are fiber-producing animals; they do not need to be slaughtered to reap their product, and their fiber is a renewable resource that grows yearly.

Cultural presence[edit]

Alpacas are closely tied to cultural practices for Andeans people. Prior to colonization the image of the alpaca was used in rituals and in their religious practices. Since the people in the region depended heavily on these animals for their sustenance, the alpaca was seen as a gift from Pachamama. Alpacas being used for their meat, fibers for clothing, and art, and their images in the form of conopas.

Conopas take their appearance from the Suri alpacas, with long locks flanking its sides and bangs covering the eyes, and a depression on the back. This depression is used in ritual practices, usually filled with coca leaves and fat from alpacas and lamas, to bring fertility and luck. While their use was prevalent before colonization, the attempts to convert the Andeans people to Catholicism lead to the acquisition of more than 3,400 conopas in Lima alone.

The origin of alpaca is depicted in legend that says they came to be in the world after a goddess fell in love with a man. The goddess’ father only allowed her to be with her lover if he cared for her herd of alpacas. On top of caring for the herd he was to always carry a small animal for his entire life. As she come into our world the alpacas followed her. Everything was fine until the man set the small animal down and the goddess fled back to her home. On her way back home, the man attempted to stop her and her herd from fleeing. While he was not able to stop her from returning he was able to stop a few alpacas from returning. These alpacas who didn’t make it back are seen today in the swampy lands in the Andes waiting for the end of world, so they may return to their goddess.[51]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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