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Alpacas are the smallest of the domesticated camel species. They have a slender body and neck, with a small head and large, pointed ears. The coat is either uniform or multicolor, with up to 22 color variations, from white to black and brown. There are two breeds of alpacas: Huacaya and Suri. Huacaya are the most abundant. The body, legs, and neck of Huacaya are covered by long, crimpy hair, while the head and feet are covered by short hair. In Suris, the hair grows parallel to the body, has no crimp, feels more like silk and grows faster than in Huacayas.
Alpacas are social animals. They live in herds that are not only composed of other alpacas but also include other species such as llamas, goats, and sheep. They use most of their body parts for communication and produce a broad range of vocalizations. Alpacas use communal dung piles to deposit urine and feces.
The alpaca is a strict grazer, with a diet of different grass species.
The alpaca is a polygynous species and dominant males can form harems of five to ten females. They do not have a set breeding season and can breed year round. Gestation takes between 242 and 345 days. Alpacas usually have a single young. At birth, alpacas weigh from eighteen to twenty pounds. Alpacas offspring up to six months of age are referred to as crias. They are weaned at six to eight months. Females reach sexual maturity at twelve to fifteen months, males at around 30 to 36 months.
After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores to South America, alpaca populations were extremely reduced and displaced to the highest regions of the Andes. Alpacas, and llamas, were replaced by sheep and goats brought from Europe. Populations are not endangered now, but are still relegated to the highest regions of the Andes. In the 1980s, alpacas began to be exported outside of South America for farming purposes. They are now found in countries such as the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and the Netherlands, among others. In spite of the increase in alpaca farming outside its native territory, it has been estimated that of the 3.5 million alpacas, 99% of the world population are found in South America. Peru holds 87% of the alpaca population, followed by Bolivia with 9.5%. Most of the alpacas reared in South America are under the control of traditional pastoralists who keep llamas and alpacas together. This is problematic since alpacas and llamas can crossbreed, possibly making alpacas an endangered species since its genetic make-up is being compromised by crossbreeds with the llama.