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Keeping camelids close: these friendly, inquisitive animals are more than the perfect pet.

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While the sheep, cow and horse seem to have been around forever, the llama and alpaca are fairly new faces in the barnyard. But these South American camelids are slowly becoming a popular herd in the United States.

Relatives of the camel, the llama family originated in North America, but they migrated south millennia ago and were domesticated at least 4,000 years ago as pack, meat and fiber animals in Bolivia, Chile and Peru. Four camelid species populate the Andean highlands: the wild vicuna and guanaco and the domesticated llama and alpaca.

These cud-chewing ungulates are equipped with a three-chambered stomach and two-toed feet complete with toenails and a tough, leathery sole-pad. Adapted to steep and rocky terrain, South American camelids can move the pads on their toes to get a better grip. The four species, while distinct, can interbreed, and unlike mules, babies born of llama and alpaca parents are fertile.

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Wild ancestors

As the probable ancestor of the llama, the guanaco (gwah-NAHK-oh) is the animal most likely to have been chosen for domestication by early South Americans. About 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder, guanacos weigh about 200 pounds and are double coated, which means they have a coarse outer hair and soft undercoat. They are light brown with white underbelly and have a gray face and small straight ears.

The vicuna (vih-coo-nya) is the smallest of the camelids at about 2.5 to 3 feet tall at the shoulder and 100-125 pounds. Its ears are slightly longer and its head is slightly shorter than the guanaco. It is cinnamon-colored with longer white fur on its belly and chest. Vicuna fiber is the finest in the world (see "With camelids, it's all about the fiber," Page 70), and the alpaca is speculated to have vicuna in its background.

Llama

Long prized by the Incas, llamas arrived in United States zoos in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They remained a curiosity until the 1970s when an Oregon farm's directed public-relations campaign brought them into the spotlight. Since then, the North American llama population has grown to more than 160,000.

Llamas are the largest of the South American camelids, weighing in at 250-450 pounds and standing about 4 feet at the shoulder and 5.5 to more than 6 feet at the head. They come in various shades of brown, black, white, gray and red and range from one solid color to many different patterns and spots.

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Llamas are often classified by the length of their wool. Light wool or pack style animals (sometimes called classic or ccara) are double coated, with guard hair and a softer undercoat. The downy undercoat may be harvested by brushing rather than shearing, which leaves the harsher outer coat behind. Heavy wool llamas (called tapada and lanuda by some) have longer wool over more of their bodies (some with fringe on their legs and ears) and have been selectively bred to have very fine and soft guard hair. These animals produce more fiber and must be sheared. The third type is relatively new, the silky or suri (SIR-ee) llama. Like their alpaca counterpart, their fiber is more hair-like, straighter and more lustrous. The suri style sport distinct locks that curl into ringlets, while silkies lack the lock structure. (See "Walnut Ridge Llama Farm," Page 66, for more suri llamas.)

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Alpaca

Smaller than the llama and bred for fiber production, the more recently developed alpaca wasn't imported to North America in a significant way until the early 1980s. Today that northern herd's number is more than 100,000 and growing. Alpacas stand about 3 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh an average of 150 pounds. They naturally come in 22 basic colors that range from black to white and include browns, grays, tans and creams. They have more of a tendency for solid colors than llamas (which makes sense for fiber production), but white markings may appear on their legs, necks or faces.

Two types of alpaca are easily distinguished by fiber type. The huacaya (wah-KI-ya) is much more common (80 percent of domestic alpacas are huacaya) and has a dense wavy or crimpy fleece that grows perpendicular to the skin. The suri variety has silky lustrous fiber that grows more parallel to the body and hangs down in ringlets. Both types are sheared once a year (see "The Alpaca Whisperer" on Page 68) and produce 3 to 11 pounds of fiber.

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Living the llama lifestyle

Still fairly specialized, with just under 40,000 farms in North America, camelids are not going to take over the landscape any time soon, but those who raise them, love them. They praise the animals as intelligent, mild tempered and gregarious, and fondly give them credit for contributing to an entire lifestyle. Because they are herd animals, it's widely acknowledged that no one can have just one--nor should they.

Llama and alpaca festivals feature fleece judging, halter shows and even obstacle course and costume competitions.

Both llamas and alpacas are induced ovulators (the females only produce eggs when they are bred), and they have one baby at a time about a year later (gestation is about 350 days). While there are exceptions, most cria (baby llamas or alpacas) are born in the daylight hours without human intervention. (For more information on keeping llamas and alpacas healthy, check out "Living on Llama Llane" in the January/February 2007 issue of GRIT or in our online archives at www.Grit.com.)

If you dream of becoming part of the camelid craze, buying a couple of fiber animals or a guard llama may be accomplished with a relatively small investment. Fiber alpacas are available for between $500 and $3,000, and a working llama is available for as low as $500. Investing in the future of the industry requires a bit more of an outlay, however, as breeding llamas sell for $1.000 to $4,000 or more. while a breeding quality alpaca can be worth more than $30,000.

Fine fiber flexibility

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Suri alpaca fiber is silky, straight and lustrous. It is best suited for garments where drape is an asset and elasticity is less important.

Huacaya alpaca fiber is soft, dense, fluffy and crimpy. The fibers are mostly hollow (for warmth) and work well to create a light, lofty yarn.

Llamas at Work

Llamas are the working class of South American camelids. As pack animals, they can carry up to one third of their weight. Because of their low environmental impact, llamas are the companion choice of hikers in many areas. Their protective instincts and alert nature make llamas reliable guard animals for sheep and goat herds as well as other livestock. They have been known to attack coyotes or dogs who threaten the flock, even going so far as to herd the flock to safety during a snowstorm.

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Would the real alpaca please stand up?

You've gotten to the point where you can differentiate a camelid from a cow, but how do you tell an alpaca from a llama?

1 Llamas are bigger. While the trend to breed for larger, more robust llamas has gone by the wayside, if a llama and alpaca stand side-by-side, the llama will still be able to look over his smaller, fluffier cousin.

2 Their ears are different. Llamas have longer, "banana-shaped" ears, while alpacas' are shorter and straighter.

3 Llamas have less hair coverage. Alpacas grow fiber on their face and cheeks, and all but the wooliest llamas (or those with alpaca in their background) have cleaner faces.

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Associate editor and fiber fanatic Jenn Nemec discovered yet another obsession while researching and meeting llamas and alpacas.
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Author:Nemec, Jennifer
Publication:Grit
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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