- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Rodentia
- Family: Chinchillidae
- Genus: Chinchilla
- Species: langera (long-tailed), chinchilla (short-tailed)
Smaller than a house cat, with large, dark eyes, velvety rounded ears, and plush, grayish fur, the chinchilla is perhaps one of the most enchanting rodents around! They are wildly social, living in family groups, which can form vast colonies, called herds, of over 100 individuals. Unlike other rodents, male chinchillas help raise the youngsters if needed. And if a female is unable to nurse her own kits, another female may come to rescue and feed her young. Now, that’s being neighborly!
There are two chinchilla species: the long-tailed or Chilean Chinchilla lanigera and the short-tailed Chinchilla chinchilla. Both have suffered from excessive hunting and trapping, and both are currently listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Endangered, as their numbers continue to decline despite current protection measures. C. lanigera is the type more likely to be kept as a pet.
Living in the harsh Andes Mountains of South America, chinchillas have had millions of years of evolution to grow their dense, soft, lush fur, in response to the elements. The ancient Incan Empire hunted chinchillas for their meat and fur, and kept them as pets. Chinchilla fur became popular in the 1700s, and commercial hunting in northern Chile began in earnest in 1828. All chinchillas were hunted and trapped, but C. chinchilla was especially sought after, due to its higher-quality fur and larger size. Fur traders even used dynamite to destroy their burrow systems, which also annihilated many of the rodents.
By the early 1900s, chinchillas were a whisker away from becoming extinct.
Channeling chinchillas. According to the Chinchilla Chronicles website (yes, there is such a thing), an American mining engineer named Mathias F. Chapman fell in love with the rotund little rodents and received special permission from the Chilean government to import nearly a dozen chinchillas into the US in the 1920s. He was careful in the transport, taking over a year to slowly acclimate the chinchillas to a lower altitude, and he brought along their natural food for the journey. It is thought that nearly every pet chinchilla in the US today is a direct descendant of the 11 chinchillas Chapman imported to the US.
Domestic chinchillas, which have been selectively bred for nearly 100 years, are almost twice the size of those in the wilderness. Adult females are about 30 percent larger than males; the difference is a bit less pronounced in the wilderness.
Fast and furry-ous. The chinchilla is related to guinea pigs and porcupines. With short front legs (used to hold food as they sit upright), and long, muscular hind legs, chinchillas resemble small-eared rabbits or a mini kangaroo. The chinchilla’s hair is about 1.5 inches (40 millimeters) long, with gray, white, and black bands. It can appear bluish or silver gray. These creatures are fleet of foot and can jump across a six-foot crevice. The chinchilla may appear bulky, but that thick, silky fur hides the physique of a remarkably athletic rodent!
Large, black eyes survey the land, while its bushy tail twitches. Short forefeet have five digits, and narrow hindfeet have three digits and a rudimentary digit with stiff bristles surrounding a small, flat claw. Bristles may help provide traction on rocky terrain. Females are larger than males.
With a dense fur coat and being unable to pant or sweat, chinchillas can easily overheat in human care. Its only cooling mechanism is to pump blood through its large ears, which have less hair.
HABITAT AND DIET
A real hole in the wall. Living in the barren, arid, rugged areas of the Andes of northern Chile at unforgiving altitudes of 9,800 to over 16,000 feet (3,000 to 5,000 meters), chinchillas hole up in rock crevices or dig burrows at the base of rocks.
According to the IUCN: Typical habitat is rocky or sandy with sparse cover of thorny shrubs, few herbs and forbs, scattered cactuses, and patches of succulent bromeliads near the coast.
Greens and seeds. Despite their harsh environment, the Chilean chinchilla Chinchilla lanigera is a selective folivore and granivore, choosing plants with high fiber and low lignin content. Their diet changes seasonally, with its most common food being the perennial Chilean needlegrass, but it consumes ferns, a succulent bromeliad, and cactus, which is likely its main source of water. It eats sitting upright, holding food in its forefeet.
Chillin’ chinchillas. Chinchillas are nocturnal or crepuscular. In the open—and their harsh habitat is mostly open—they sit upright while sunbathing in the morning, grooming, or eating. They must gnaw on things keep their ever-growing incisors in check. They rarely squabble with neighbors. To maintain a healthy coat, chinchillas take dust baths regularly, leaving a whispered circle of light, fine pumice dust.
Watch this! Living in large groups can help ward off danger, as there are more eyes on the lookout. But as a rodent, chinchillas are “fair game” for an array of predators from land and sky. Owls and hawks may take them from the air, while foxes, cougars, and even snakes may hunt them on the ground. Fortunately, these agile little creatures have a range of defenses including running lightning fast, darting for cover, spraying urine, and, if things really get tense, releasing a clump of fur in the mouth of an attacker if bitten (called a “fur slip”).
Of course, these defenses do little to protect them from their most formidable predator: humans. Chinchillas were hunted mercilessly for their pelts, and despite current protections, their numbers continue to decline.
Chinchilla chatter. Like most social mammals, chinchillas have a significant vocal repertoire. Ten different sounds, varying by behavioral context, are made while exploring, in response to predators, sexual encounters, and social behavior toward both friend and foe. All chinchillas “have a similar cry that is used commonly from birth,” notes the Merck Veterinary Manual.
Family ties. Both the long-tailed and short-tailed chinchilla are highly social, living in large colonies of up to 100 individuals. Females are dominant and aggressive toward other females as well as the males during estrus, although serious fighting is rare.
After an estrous cycle of 38 days, females may have two or even three litters per year. The breeding season is November to May in the Northern Hemisphere. Litter size ranges from one to six, but two is the average number of offspring. They are born fully furred and with their eyes and ears open. Young become sexually mature at around eight months of age.
Unlike other rodents, males stick around and may assist with parental duties like babysitting. Should a female be unable to nurse her offspring, another female may step up to feed the youngsters.
AT THE ZOO
There are two long-tailed chinchillas at the Safari Park.
Conservation measures were implemented with legislation to protect the (long-tailed) Chilean chinchilla in 1929. However, laws were not seriously enforced until the establishment in 1983 of the Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas in Auco, Chile. The IUCN reports that populations inside the reserve are in decline, while those outside, in restored habitats, are increasing. Mining operations are a significant threat to this once widespread rodent.
In decline. The short-tailed chinchilla population has declined by about 90 percent in the past. Illegal hunting and trapping of them has declined somewhat through the establishment of rearing in human care. Though they once populated the Andes of Bolivia, Peru, northwest Argentina, and Chile, they persist in only two known regions in Chile.
But threats to chinchillas persist, including illegal hunting, quality habitat loss from grazing by cattle and goats, mining, and firewood extraction. (Domestic chinchillas are not subject to international conservation regulations.) Sharing chinchilla information and providing up-close encounters with these endearing rodents will hopefully inspire people to help conserve them.