The Chinchilla is a small, furry rodent, about the size of a rabbit, that is native to the Andes mountains of South America. There are two species of Chinchilla, Chinchilla lanigera and Chinchilla brevicaudata. There is little noticeable difference between the two species except that the Chinchilla brevicaudata has a shorter tail, a thicker neck and shoulders and shorter ears.
Chinchilla brevicaudata is currently facing extinction. The name 'Chinchilla' means 'Little Chincha', named after the Chincha people of the Andes. The Chincha people hunted chinchillas for their soft, dense fur. Their fur is one of the most dense of any other animals having 60 hairs per follicle. The number of chinchillas in the wild is rapidly decreasing, however, because of the chinchillas shy, sensitive and intelligent nature, they have become increasingly popular as house pets.
Chinchillas can be found in a variety of colours.
Wild chinchillas are grey in colour, however, domestic chinchillas can be beige, a light champagne colour and many other colours. Their underparts are a light yellow colour. Its body is small and they have a bushy tail.
Chinchillas are covered in dense, soft fur to insulate them from the cold barren mountainous regions where they live. Its body is slender with a tail measuring up to a third of its body size.
Chinchillas have long, strong hind legs, which enable them to run and jump agilely up to 5 feet (1.5 metres) high. Female chinchillas are slightly larger than male chinchillas, although they both weigh between 400 and 500 grams. Their heart rate ranges from 100 - 150 beats per minute.
Chinchillas preferred habitats are burrows or rock crevices. They also inhabit barren, arid areas of mountains at elevations of 3,000 - 5,000 metres.
Chinchillas are strictly herbivores and feed primarily on seeds and grass, they also eat a variety of other vegetation and plant matter. While eating, chinchillas sit upright on their hind legs and hold the food in their front paws.
In the wild, Chinchillas live in social groups called herds which contain around 100 individuals. Chinchillas are primarily nocturnal animals with activity peaking at dusk and dawn. During the day they rest in holes and crevices among rocks, emerging at dusk to forage through the night. Chinchillas make a variety of vocalizations, including chirps, squeaks and barks. They use these sounds to express themselves, from a calm, loving chirp given to a potential mate to a loud, aggressive bark when threatened. Chinchillas are very clean creatures.
Predators of chinchillas in the wild include birds of prey, skunks, felines, snakes and canines. Chinchillas have a variety of defence tactics including spraying urine and releasing fur if bitten.
Both male and female chinchillas reach sexual maturity at 8 months old. Breeding season is mainly during November and May, however, they may breed at any time of the year. Female chinchillas enter into estrous which lasts around 30 - 50 days. The female gestation period is quite long compared to other rodents, lasting around 111 days. The average litter size is between 1 - 6 young, called Kits.
The kits weigh 30 - 60 grams at birth and because of the length of the gestation period, they are born with fur and with their eyes open. The kits suckle milk until they are weaned at 6 - 8 weeks old. Chinchilla kits often greet their parents with a very high pitch chirp, usually to indicate that they are hungry. The average life span of a chinchilla is 10 years although some can live until they are 18 years old.
Chinchilla Conservation Status
Chinchillas are classed as a 'vulnerable' species by the IUCN as populations have suffered due to habitat loss by the burning and harvesting of the algarobilla shrub at lower altitudes. There are currently only an estimated 10,000 individuals left in the Chilean mountains. Chinchilla are protected by law in their natural habitat, however, it is difficult to monitor hunting in the remote mountain ranges of the Andes and illegal hunting does continue in some areas. Human intervention and conservation measures are required to prevent extinction in the wild. Breeding in captivity, however, is still successful and hundreds of chinchillas are bred for pets.
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