The chinchilla's origin explains this rodent's distinctive characteristics such as her thick coat and powerful hind legs for jumping. Built for the frigid, arid mountains, domesticated chinchillas need some comforts of home to remain happy and healthy: fine dust in which to bathe, ledges to provide playtime with altitude and proper temperature to stay cool.
There are two species of chinchillas: the large eared Chinchilla lanigera with silky furs, native to the Andes mountains of northern Chile, are naturally gray rodents usually kept as pets; the Chinchilla brevicaudata are stockier, coarse-coated animals with smaller ears found in the Andes mountains of northern Chile, southern Peru, Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. Their agility allows them to jump around barren peaks as tall as 16,500 feet while their dense furs protects them from chill. Their compact size allows them to hide in rock crevices during the daytime. Chinchillas are an endangered species due to being hunted for their fur; in the early 1900s, half a million chinchilla pelts were exported from Chile each year.
Coming to America
M.F. Chapman, a mining engineer, was working in Chile in 1918 when he purchased a chinchilla from a seller who came to his camp. He organized a trapping party to go into the mountains and catch more, and in three years caught 11 of the rodents to bring to California. As their fur has been prized since the age of the ancient Incas, the species was already facing extinction and those remaining weren't easy to trap. The chinchillas landed in the United States in 1923.
Chinchillas are bred as household pets with traditional coloring and mutations such as white or black. Though they've never lost wild qualities like speed and the ability to vertically jump up to five feet, attempts at using captive-bred chinchillas to help the wild populations recover have been unsuccessful. Wild chinchillas were discovered in Chile in 1975 after many feared the animal had gone extinct.
Las Chinchillas National Reserve
Visitors to Chile can see chinchillas in their natural habitat in a national effort to protect the last endangered wild colonies of these crepuscular rodents. Las Chinchillas National Reserve spans nearly 11,000 acres in the province of Choapa and is open for hiking and camping. A visitors' center has a nocturnal habitat behind one-way glass for chinchillas and other animals native to the region. Wild chinchillas can be seen in the high parts of the reserve's hills.