John & Susan Merrell
41390 Hwy 226
Scio, OR 97374
503-551-7219 (cell)
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The Black Box of Genetics

Genetics and heredity are the basis of sound breeding decisions.  It is important that the serious alpaca breeder have at least a basic understanding of how traits are passed from generation to generation.

Alpaca genetics are poorly understood, although advances are being made.  This does not mean that breeders are unable to use the basics of genetic theory in their breeding programs.

Alpacas have not been subject to the kind of selective breeding that other types of livestock have experienced.  The result is a lack of distinctive breeds such as one might see in cattle for instance.  A side effect of the lack of specific breeds is the lack of knowledge about specific production qualities.

In a very real sense, alpaca genetics remain a black box.

Breeders can see what an individual alpaca looks like (phenotype).  This may be only a poor reflection of what lies inside (genotype).  Without better knowledge of genotype, every breeding decision becomes a roll of the dice.

Even when using a sire of the best quality, and with a reputation of "throwing true to type" the breeder does not know what the actual result might look like, since the dam may be a bit of an unknown as well.

Compounding this is the way many breeders approach their breeding program.  In the current market, diversity of bloodlines is often valued.  While diverse bloodlines across the industry is certainly a good thing, the same may not be true within an individual herd.

Consider the alpaca owner that has several dams of diverse bloodlines within their herd.  We start out with inconsistency right there, and that inconsistency that is made worse when the owner seeks out sires to put over the girls.  While each breeding decision is aimed at producing a superior animal, and is often successful, the genetic base of the herd becomes more and more diverse.

Over time, the genetic consistency within the herd becomes more and more unknown, even though the quality of the individual offspring may be improving.

It is somewhat counter-intuitive, but the appearance of the herd can improve even as the genetic base deteriorates.

One of the goals of the alpaca breeder should include opening the black box.  This means concentrating, not diversifying, the genetic base of the herd, and it will be measured by consistency in offspring within the individual herd.

This is why it is important to have goals for the breeding program in mind, and to work towards improvement of specific traits across the herd rather than in specific animals. 

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"Manufactures from their hair more resemble silk than woolen stuffs, and some of those made of the Alpaca fleece, are quite black, without having been dyed. It has been a matter of surprise to many, that they are not naturalized in this country, as the climate would not be an obstacle to success. The demand, however, for their produce so much, increases, that it is very probable they may at some future time become denizens of our mountainous districts..."

R. Lee
Anecdotes of the Habits and Instinct of Animals (1852)
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