UMass Amherst Veterinary Scientists' Research Helps Alpaca Wool Growers in Peru

AMHERST, Mass. – This week at an international conference in Vancouver, Canada, veterinary and animal scientists from the University of Massachusetts Amherst are presenting results of their research, some the first studies ever done in Peru and on the UMass Amherst campus to improve the success of alpaca farmers who rely almost entirely on these animals for their livelihood.
 
Professor Steve Purdy, veterinarian and director of the camelid studies program at UMass Amherst, with recent graduates Weston Brown and Caitlin Donovan, will present three papers at the International Congress on Animal Reproduction’s camelid satellite meeting on Aug. 3-4 in British Columbia. They studied alpaca semen quality and correlation to pregnancy, embryonic dynamics of early pregnancy and how to improve overall breeding success. Unlike llamas, the much smaller alpaca, also a relative of the camel is not used as a beast of burden but for its fine, warm fleece.
 
For the people of Peru’s Andean highlands often living above 11,000 feet, alpacas and the cash their fleeces bring are an economic lifeline in an environment that is often too dry and cold even to grow staples like potatoes. At UMass Amherst, Purdy leads one of the few research programs in the nation where undergraduate animal science students conduct original camelid reproductive research in a modern clinical facility.
 
Purdy says, “I’ve been working with herding families and their animals in Puno District in the southern Andes in Peru through a U.S. non-profit organization called the Nuñoa Project for the past five years, in particular in three poor communities especially in need of assistance. We’ve identified a handful of problems, including high losses among newborn alpacas due to a disease preventable with a vaccine, and pneumonia among young animals born during the rainy season. We’ve made some progress along with the local government in Nunoa in distributing the vaccine and in protecting newborns.”  
 
“But more generally, these endangered herding families also need support to improve alpaca breeding success, birth rates and fleece quantity and quality, so we’ve recently focused on finding ways to address those problems.”
 
At the international conference, Brown’s presentation will describe how the researchers from the Nuñoa Project team identified local alpaca herds with the best breeding success, with 70 to 80 percent birthing rates verified by ultrasound, and introduced a breeding improvement program. The Nuñoa Project veterinary team also selected six top quality males to distribute to three poorer farms to help improve breeding success.
 
For her part, Donovan will present results of a study conducted with other UMass students showing that ultrasound is a useful tool for observing female alpacas in the first 40 days of pregnancy and evaluating parameters such as changes in the corpus luteum and development of the embryo. Of the 12 pregnancies they studied, Donovan and colleagues note that five failed to result in a live birth. This is typical for alpacas, Purdy notes. The goal is to identify ultrasound characteristics of successful pregnancies and normally cycling female alpacas.
 
In Purdy’s presentation on normal semen parameters such as sperm activity, live/dead percentage and concentration in 20 male alpacas and their relation to pregnancy rate, he reports that no direct correlation for any parameter was found. This work has been ongoing at UMass and in Peru for three years conducted by a variety of UMass Amherst undergraduates, including Brown and Donovan.
 
“No other studies exist anywhere which investigate this area,” Purdy says. “Normal values for alpaca semen characteristics have also been established in this study and the Nuñoa Project veterinary team is pursuing these data under field conditions in the Andean herds with which they work.”