The chinchilla is a small, furry rodent originating in the Andes Mountains of South America. Two species are recognized in the wild: Chinchilla chinchilla (formerly C. brevicaudata) and Chinchilla lanigera, with the latter having larger ears and a longer tail. Chinchillas weigh on average 1 to 2 pounds and reach about 12 inches in length, not counting the tail, with females slightly larger. In captivity they can live up to 20 years. Both species are kept as pets, although C. lanigera is more common in the pet trade.
Chinchillas live in the harsh, windy climate high of the Andes, from the middle elevations up to 15,000 feet or more. The semi-desert terrain is rugged and temperatures vary greatly within a single day, with highs reaching 80 degrees and lows near freezing. To escape the heat of the day and hide from predators, chinchillas burrow in rock crevices and underground tunnels. Once numerous throughout the Andes, they are known to exist today only in Chile.
In the sparse terrain, chinchillas feed on shrubs, berries, cacti, seeds, roots and insects. Water is scarce, so they rely on morning dew as a source of water. The cardon plant, a type of cactus, provides not only food and water, but also shelter for the animal, who often burrows around the base of the plant. The algarrobilla shrub was once a major food source, but habitat destruction has caused a sharp decline in its numbers, subsequently affecting chinchilla populations.
A chinchilla’s fur is famously soft and plush. They can have up to 60 hairs per follicle -- humans usually have one. This dense coat protects them from temperature extremes in their native habitat. The fur is also coated with lanolin, which makes it impenetrable to pests and parasites. Chinchillas clean themselves with dust baths -- they roll in the volcanic ash that is plentiful in their Andes habitat. One interesting defensive tactic is the chinchilla’s ability to release fur if bitten, thereby escaping from a would-be predator.
Chinchillas have been hunted for their fur to near-extinction and are listed as critically endangered. In 2012 the International Union for the Conversation of Nature estimated that the wild populations of C. chinchilla have declined by 90 percent, and C. lanigera by 80 percent.
Chinchillas are social creatures, forming herds of approximately 15 to 100 in the wild. They interact with one another through vocalizations, grooming, cleaning and mating. Adult females have two or three litters per year, averaging two kits per litter. Chinchillas are categorized as crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, but they are also somewhat nocturnal. If you have one as a pet, he’ll mostly stay quiet during the day. Because of the mountainous terrain they inhabit, chinchillas are excellent jumpers, leaping up to 6 feet. Curious and inquisitive, they like to explore their surroundings.
- Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine: Chinchilla Wellness
- Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered: Short-Tailed Chinchilla
- Chinchilla Chronicles: Chinchilla Habitat
- Chinchilla Care Advisor: Chinchillas and Their Wild Habitat
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: C. chinchilla
- International Union for the Conservation of Nature: C. lanigera
Leslie Darling has been a writer since 2003, writing regularly for "Mississippi Magazine" and "South Mississippi Living," specializing in food and wine, animals and pets, and all things Southern. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans.