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What are alpacas, exactly?

What are alpacas, exactly?

Alpacas (and llamas) are camelids 

Known around the world for their incredibly luxurious wool, alpacas are one of the camelid species, which means they’re closely related not only to the camel but also to the llama. While their be-humped cousins live all across the globe from Africa to Australasia, there are four species of South American camelid. Llamas (lama glama – we just love that Latin name!) and alpacas (vicugna pacos) are the two breeds who’ve been domesticated, while vicuna (vicugna vicugna) and guanaco (lama guanicoe) remain wild; they’re protected species.  

Wild or domesticated, all four of the South American camelid species are found mainly in the Peruvian Andes and, in smaller numbers, in Bolivia and Chile. Specifically, they come from the Altiplano (Spanish for high plain) in west-central South America, which includes the borders of Peru, Bolivia and Chile – a region of the Andes that’s mostly about two and half miles above sea level. These beautiful mountainous countries get very cold – that’s why alpacas have such gorgeous, thick wool (and why they do so well in Wales!). 

Nobody knows for sure, but it’s generally believed that alpacas and llamas were both domesticated from the wild species more than 6,000 years ago. Understandably, alpacas were kept for their fleeces, of which they naturally produce one each year, and llamas were kept as burden-bearing animals – although both have sometimes been kept for their meat, too. 

These days, alpacas are farmed across the world – Australia and New Zealand have particularly large numbers – but did you know that there are two types of alpaca? 

Huacaya alpaca 

It’s not the most balanced world: 95% of domesticated alpacas are huacaya. You can tell the difference between the two species very easily; the biggest difference is in their wool. Huacaya’s wool (or ‘fibre’) is naturally crimped and grows out at a perpendicular angle to their skin, giving them a super fluffy look, almost like teddy bears. 

Suri alpaca 

Suri alpacas and Huacaya alpacas have different characteristics of their fibre. Suri alpacas appear more angular and slenderer due to their long, lustrous fibres that hang down against their bodies, as opposed to growing perpendicular to the skin the way Huacaya fibre does. 

The suri appearance is due to its fibre growing out of the skin in bundles/locks without any crimped wave. This makes the suri locks twist and hang down along the flank of the alpaca.