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What's An Alpaca?

An Alpaca’s small size and unique teddy-bear appearance is enough to catch your eye.

It’s tranquil temperament and gentle personality will allow you to fall in love as you stroke its luxurious fiber, listen to it’s calming hum, and observe as it curiously explores and interacts with its surroundings. The following paragraphs will help you get to know this rare animal. Meet the Alpaca!


The alpaca is a member of the camelid family, which includes the camel as well as the alpaca’s closer South American relative – the llama. The ancestor of the camelid family actually originated in the North American Southwest approximately 50 million years ago and then migrated from North America to South America, Asia and Northern Africa. These camelid forefathers then became extinct in North America. There are no such things as "wild" alpacas – they have always been a domesticated animal that is the product of years of selective breeding, much like the poodle or the beagle. In the Incan culture, alpacas and llamas were a treasured commodity, utilized for garments, hides, fertilizer, fuel, and meat. 

Initially, the Spanish conquistadors attempted unsuccessfully to transplant the alpaca into Spain in the early 1700’s. In addition, there have been many other minor attempts, with varying degrees of failure, to establish herds of alpacas in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Although llamas have been in North America since the late 1800’s, outside of sporadic importations of zoo specimens, there were few significant importations of alpacas into North America until 1984. Since that time, the North American herd has grown both by natural reproduction and through a series of large (400 plus) and small (12-20) imports primarily from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Australia and New Zealand. As of October 1999, the North American herd in the United States numbered approximately 24,000 registered animals, compared to four million in Peru alone. From 1995 through the end of 1998, imports of alpacas into North America has been somewhat restrained by the Peruvian government’s attempts to avoid losing the country’s best genetic material. The financial risk of discovering disease while the Alpaca is in the required importation quarantine, the increasingly rigorous screening inspections by the Alpaca Registry, and the fear of foot and mouth disease have also restricted importation. As of 1999, the Alpaca Registry has discontinued its practice of screening non-pedigreed animals for inclusion into the registry, closing the registry to any animal that is not the proven off- spring of two registered parents. As a result, even if an alpaca is imported into the United States, it cannot be registered. The opinion of most breeders is that this reduction of importations should keep supply and demand for the alpaca in the United States in balance for years to come. It will also allow North American breeders to develop alpacas with outstanding pedigrees that will compare with and exceed any other group of animals throughout the world.


The alpaca is a single-coated fiber animal, typically weighing between 120 and 175 pounds as an adult. The average alpaca stands about 32 to 39 inches high at the withers (front shoulders) and usually cannot quite look an average adult in the eye.

Alpaca females can become pregnant at around one- year- old, and has a gestation period of a little over 11 months. A newborn alpaca, called a "cria," usually weighs 12-19 pounds at birth. A newborn cria is usually up on its feet within ½ hour of its birth, and is often seen running wobbly laps in the pasture on the second day. weaned from its mother at about 5-7 months of age. Alpacas are shorn once a year, usually in the late Spring and before the summer heat arrives. The alpaca will produce an annual fleece with a staple length varying as much as 2 to 6 inches, with an annual fleece weight of 4 to 12 pounds.

Types of Alpacas There are two basic types of alpacas – the huacaya and the suri alpaca. The huacaya alpaca is by far the more common, representing approximately 90 percent of the Peruvian herds and probably even more of the North American herd. Huacaya fiber grows straight out from the alpaca’s body, with fiber that is characterized by crimp and loft. In contrast, the suri alpaca has fiber that hangs from its body in pencil-sized ringlets. Although lacking in the crimp of the huacaya fiber, suri fiber’s smoother fiber shaft gives the fiber a more lustrous look and a smoother handle. In addition, there are minor differences in "types" of huacaya alpacas, typically referred to as a "Peruvian," on the one hand, and a "Chilean" look. These differences are probably best thought of as merely stereotypical differences between two populations of animals, each of which actually demonstrate a fairly wide range of individual traits. Nonetheless, it is generally accurate to say that a percentage of the Peruvian huacayas tend to have somewhat denser fiber coverage and/or finer fiber, and that Chilean huacayas have a much broader range of genetically based fiber colors. However, as breeders become more sophisticated and experienced, and as selective breeding continues to improve the Chileans’ fiber and add color into the Peruvian population, it is wiser to simply judge each animal on its own individual merit and pedigree according to a prospective breeder’s personal tastes.

Updated March 26, 2012