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Where Are Alpacas From? Where Do They Live in the Wild?

alpaca standing on the grass

Don’t go on a goose chase for wild alpacas; you won’t find any! These fuzzy, friendly-looking animals were domesticated thousands of years ago and are mostly found in the high altitudes of the Andes, South America. They are kept in herds and can be seen mainly in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.

Besides, the alpaca is not only a mammal similar to the llama but fluffier and more adorable; it is also known for its soft, silky and durable fleece. This warm and high-quality fleece is also called “the fiber of the gods.” With such a name, it is not surprising that it is so expensive!

Let’s dive into the controversial origins of the alpaca and its habitat in the Andean mountains, where living conditions are often quite challenging.

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What Are the Origins of the Alpaca?

The alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domestic mammal of the camelid family, to which camels, dromedaries, llamas, guanacos, and vicuñas also belong. The guanacos are the ancestor of the llamas, and the vicuñas are the common ancestor of the alpaca. However, this data is relatively recent: it was believed for a long time that alpacas shared the same ancestor as llamas, namely the guanaco!

two alpacas
Image Credit: sharonang, Pixabay

However, this turned out to be incorrect. Indeed, genetic studies dating back to 2001 demonstrated that alpacas were indeed the domesticated descendants of vicuñas, putting an end to a debate on the origins of the alpaca that had lasted for decades. The confusion over the exact origins of this animal was mainly caused by the fact that alpacas and llamas are able to interbreed and produce fertile offspring. This offspring is called huarizo.

Nevertheless, thanks to the development of DNA analysis techniques, it is now known that alpacas descend from the vicuña and that they have been domesticated in the Andes for almost 7,000 years.

Where Do Alpacas Live in the Wild?

As mentioned before, there are no “wild” alpacas. They were domesticated thousands of years ago, and there is no known population of wild alpacas living freely on a high mountain anywhere around the globe.

Thus, between 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, alpacas were domesticated by peasants and herders in the Andes. These animals, which look like big sheep with long necks, were cherished by the Incas and considered real treasures. Alpacas provided them with food, fuel (from their dried excrement), and clothing. Besides, alpacas’ fleece was formerly reserved for the Inca nobility, hence the name “the fiber of the gods.”

brown alpaca resting in the grass
Image Credit: Pixabay

However, during the Spanish conquest in 1532, alpacas were driven out by the Spanish to be replaced by Merino sheep. The few surviving alpacas remained in the Andean highlands and were able to adapt to the harsh climate of the Altiplano. It was not until the 18th century that the English resumed breeding alpacas, mainly for their soft and warm fleece. Today, there are more than 6 million alpacas in the world, and almost the entire population is found in South America, namely Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and Bolivia.

What Are the Main Differences Between Llamas and Alpacas?

How to differentiate a llama from an alpaca? Here is some useful information that will help you on your next trip to South America!

  • The Llama Is Bigger: A full-grown llama can reach 6 feet tall and weigh up to 600 pounds. Aside from its build, it is also distinguished by its small, rounded ears at their tips, shaped like a banana. However, if the llama is often used as a beast of burden, its capacities are limited. The latter can support a maximum load of 120 pounds, but over a distance not exceeding 6 miles. Also living in herds in the Andes, the llama is now frequently domesticated. As for its temperament, it is a sociable and intelligent animal. So, yes, it does spit at times, but only when it feels in danger.
  • The Alpaca Is Fluffier: Smaller than the llama, the alpaca stands on average 3 feet tall. There are two breeds of alpacas: the Suri, whose fibers are very long and fall along its body like silky dreadlocks, and the Huacaya, whose fibers are shorter and more crimpy. Uniform in color, very dense and fluffy, the alpaca fleece gives it the appearance of a large plush. It is also renowned for the quality of its wool, which is warmer and lighter than Merino wool. Alpaca fleece is naturally black, brown, white, or gray.
Alpaca and Llama together
Image Credit: Helen Iv, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

In short, alpacas are mammals belonging to the same family as camels and dromedaries while being more physically similar to llamas. It was long believed that they descended from the same ancestor as the llamas, the guanaco, but more recent genetic studies have established that the ancestor of the alpacas was, in fact, the vicuña.

These fluffy and docile animals have been domesticated for thousands of years and are mostly found at high altitudes in the Andean mountains of South America.


Featured Image Credit: Pixabay

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