“Wow, they’re just a bunch of spare parts, aren’t they?” It’s an oft repeated sentiment from first timers on the ranch. Alpacas are, undeniably, weird looking. But you should see their cousins!
Alpacas belong to the camelid family, which includes, you guessed it, camels. All five members of this family have two toes. There are two species of old world camels, the dromedary and the Bactrian. Both of these species are domesticated, although there are still about 1000 wild Bactrian camels in the remote Gobi desert.
The rest of the camelid family is found in south America. Alpacas and llamas are two domesticated species in the Lama genus. Llamas are taller and sturdier than alpacas, with a double layer coat. They were the most important livestock for the Incas, as the only pack animals on the continent. In addition to moving the Incan armies, they provided fiber for warmth and meat for food.
Alpacas are not as well suited for bearing weight, but have a single layer coat that is easier to process for wool. In South America, most alpacas are white, because that color is easiest to dye. The other colors are not bred for (and get eaten).
The last member of the Lama genus is the wild guanaco. These little guys live in harsh high deserts, and have a double coat. There soft under layer is prized for warmth and softness, and is second only to the vicuña. Vicuñas are also wild, and are the national animal of Peru. They are protected and prized, and have soft fiber that was once used by Incan royalty. Items made from their fiber often cost thousands of dollars.
Our humble alpacas are descended from vicuñas and llamas.