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Science Department Cuts Its Way Into Alpaca Research

Posted by The Skyliner on April 16th, 2008
Brandon Leonard
Editor in chief

An animal used to make sleeping bags, parkas, the inner lining of coats and men and women’s lightweight suits is also being used for research by the university’s science department.

Alpacas, South American members of the Camel family, live mainly in Peru and Bolivia, but because of the quality and efficiency of its wool, United States entrepreneurs have started an industry here, which opened the opportunity for students to perform an alpaca autopsy in early April.
Zac Buser, art department chair, donated an alpaca to the science department for dissection and research after it died unexpectedly in late March.
“It’s very rare to do autopsies on alpacas because few want to donate an animal worth $18,000 for research,” said Dr. Thomas Allen, dean of science department.

Dr. Allen said their best guess for the cause of the animal’s death was that its digestive system stopped working. Alpacas have three stomachs, and this male’s stomachs did not process the food, leaving its intestines empty and hardly any body fat.

Research on alpacas, known for their unusual digestive system, is limited because insurance companies require an autopsy to be done after death to be certain the animal died from natural causes and not human error.

The United States’ alpaca industry is in its beginning stages.

Business owners estimate another 10 to 15 years before clothing using alpaca wool will be in widespread use by the nation’s clothing industry.

Dr. Allen attributed the lengthy time before alpaca farmers become a competitor to cotton farmers due to the number of alpacas needed before their wool can be mass produced.

At least 250,000 alpacas would need to be available for shearing before such a transition could occur. Nationally, farmers own nearly 100,000 alpacas.

Because alpaca wool is smoother and softer than sheep’s wool, an alpaca can earn up to $1,500 in a single shearing, which is why many owners insure their alpacas. Farmers shear an alpaca once a year.

Dr. Allen bought three female alpacas in the last year from Buser and has been studying how many nutrients they consume for the last four months with Lauren Culp, senior biology.

Dr. Allen hopes to use the research from the autopsy and Culp’s energy consumption into an informational book he can send to the area’s alpaca farmers. He will be adding data collected over the next year before he compiles and publishes the research.

Nearly 15 students from the spring semester’s anatomy and physiology classes took two days, April 1 and 2, to do the autopsy. Students are cleaning the skeleton and putting it back together. Both assignments counted as extra credit for the students who participated, which included a diverse group of students, spanning from freshmen to seniors.

“I have never been able to be part of something like this before,” Culp said. “I definitely learned a lot, and the hands on experience was so much better than just reading about it.”

*Anna Chapman contributed to this report