The genus, Chinchilla, is a member of the family Chinchillidae, which falls into the order of Rodentia. Chinchillidae is a monophyletic group, containing the genera Chinchilla, Lagidium, and Lagostomus. These three genera are all endemic to South America. The genus, Chinchilla, is comprised of two species, Chinchilla lanigera, and Chinchilla brevicaudata (Spotorno et al. 2004a). Within the family, Chinchilla more closely related to Lagidium, the mountain viscachas, than to Lagostomus, the pampas viscachas. The distinctiveness of the two species of Chinchilla is supported by their molecular (DNA sequence) differences, morphological differences and male sterility in hybrids (Spotorno et al. 2004a). Both species of Chinchilla are now considered to be endangered in the wild (Saunders 2009). Despite coming close to extinction, they have become better known in the wild and common as domesticated pets. Chinchilla lanigera originated from north-central Chile, but is now found also in some areas in Peru, and in the low mountains and hills of Chile. Chinchilla brevicaudata came from the mountains of Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and in the northern part of Chile. Yet, there is speculation that there are no longer any existing wild populations of C. brevicaudata (Jimènez 1996). Once discovered, these animals became valuable for their wool, meat, and pelt. Chinchillas have now become popular as domesticated pets and lab animals within the United States. There are suggestions that there has been some cross breeding between the two species in captivity (Spotorno et al. 2004a). These unique animals are small with very dense, silky fur in shades of grey, white, and black. Their long tails are generally covered in coarse black hair. In addition, they have very large ears which are important to their highly developed hearing systems. In the wild, they live in holes and tunnels, or under rocks in dry, sandy environments. As social animals, chinchillas generally live in colonies of around 100 members. These animals are mainly herbivores, feeding on various kinds of herbs and grasses (Spotorno et al. 2004b).
Chinchillas can easily be distinguished from the other genera of Chinchillidae by their size. Whereas the viscachas (Lagidium, and Lagostomus) are large rodents of up to 9kg, the chinchillas are usually around 0.5kg. The most defining difference between Chinchilla lanigera and Chinchilla brevicaudata is in their size and body shape. Chinchilla lanigera are referred to as long-tailed chinchillas, whereas Chinchilla brevicaudata are referred to as short-tailed chinchillas (Jimènez 1996). As a whole, the most notable characteristics of the Chinchilla species are their fur and ears. The fur of these animals is known for its silky touch. The fur is very thick due to the number of hairs contained in each hair follicle. There may be up to 90 hairs emanating from each hair follicle (Saunders 2009). These hairs are adapted for keeping the animal warm in their original cold, dry climates of the mountains. The hair is also unique in that it helps to minimize dander, and is, in essence, odorless and hypoallergenic, making them desirable pets. The dorsal coat can be a variety of colors: grey white, black, charcoal, or sometimes a bluish color. The ventral coat, in comparison, is a yellow-white color. Maintenance and grooming of their hair is through dust baths, which helps to remove dirt and excess oil in the coat of the chinchilla. The “dust” in these baths should be ground pumice or silver sand (Saunders 2009).
These small rodents in the wild weigh on average 412 grams as males, and 422 grams as females. In comparison, domesticated chinchillas weigh significantly more: males at 600 grams and females at 800 grams on average (Spotorno et al. 2004b). These numbers reveal a strong sexual dimorphism between males and females. This size difference is due to structural differences between the two sexes. Female Chinchilla lanigera are characterized by larger pelvis and viscerocranium bones. Also, males tend to have a faster growth period than the females (Lammers et al. 2001). These differences in size and development between the sexes are thought to be adaptive. Females may need a larger pelvis in order to give birth to young. The viscerocranium of the female may be larger if females consume larger food items (Lammers et al. 2001). In addition to being the larger of the sexes, females also tend to be dominant over males (Saunders 2009).
Life History and Behavior
The recommended amounts of dietary components for companionate chinchillas are as follows: 10-20% protein, 2-5% fat, and 15-35% bulk fiber. It is also highly suggested to supply chinchillas with timothy hay and a woodblock. Chinchilla teeth are rootless, and therefore, never stop growing. Chewing on a woodblock helps to maintain teeth and prevent oral diseases (Spotorno et al. 2004b).
Under captivity, these animals must be socialized and handled at a young age in order to interact positively with humans. They can make great pets for adults, but are not ideal for young children as they need to be handled with great care. Chinchillas are not generally aggressive animals; they rarely bite and never scratch (Saunders 2009).
Chinchillas are nocturnal animals. They tend to be most active around the hours of dawn and dusk, and sleep most of the daytime hours. They are very curious explorers of their surrounding habitats (Saunders 2009). They are capable of very quick movements such as running and jumping (Spotorno et al. 2004b). It has been recorded that they can jump to heights of five meters both horizontally as well as vertically. Chinchillas are very vocal animals, using chirps, hiccups, and clucks to communicate different feelings or emotions (Saunders 2009). When under stress they may make “eek-eek” or “nyak-nyak” noises. Shedding fur is another response to stressful conditions (Spotorno et al. 2004b).
Chinchillas have been documented to live to an average of six years in the wild. In zoos, this number is lessened to four years. However, in captivity, there have been chinchillas functioning as pets that live to be over 20 years old (Spotorno et al. 2004b).
Chinchilla young are born highly developed, after a short gestation period of, on average, 111 days. After birth, baby chinchillas have a full fur coat, teeth, open eyes, and weigh around 30-60 grams. Once delivered, they are able to walk within an hour. Young chinchillas reach sexual maturity within six to nine months of birth. Once they have reached sexual maturity, females may give birth to two to three litters per year. The average number of offspring per litter is generally around one to four (Saunders 2009).
- Jimènez JE. 1996. The extirpation and current status of wild chinchillas Chinchilla lanigera and C-brevicaudata. Biological Conservation. 77(1):1-6.
- Lammers AR, Dziech HA, German RZ. 2001. Ontogeny of sexual dimorphism in Chinchilla lanigera (Rodentia: Chinchillidae). Journal of Mammalogy. 82(1):179-189.
- Saunders R. 2009. Veterinary care of chinchillas. In Practice. 31(6): 282-291.
- Spotorno AE (a), Valladares JP, Marin JC, Palma E, Zuleta C. 2004. Molecular divergence and phylogenetic relationships of chinchillids (Rodentia: Chinchillidae). Journal of Mammalogy. 85(3):2-8.
- Spotorno AE (b), Zuleta CA, Valladares JP, Deane AL, Jimènez JE. 2004. Chinchilla laniger. Mammalian Species. 758:1-9.
Chinchillas are crepuscular (most active around dawn and dusk) rodents, slightly larger and more robust than ground squirrels. They are native to the Andes mountains in South America and live in colonies called "herds" at high altitudes up to 4,270 metres (14,000 ft). Historically, chinchillas lived in the Andes of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, but today colonies in the wild remain only in Peru and Chile. Along with their relatives, viscachas, they make up the family Chinchillidae.
The chinchilla (whose name literally means "little chincha") is named after the Chincha people of the Andes, who once wore its dense, velvet-like fur. By the end of the 19th century, chinchillas had become quite rare due to hunting for their ultra-soft fur. Most chinchillas currently used by the fur industry for clothing and other accessories are farm-raised.
The two living species of chinchilla are Chinchilla chinchilla (formerly known as Chinchilla brevicaudata) and Chinchilla lanigera. There is little noticeable difference between the species, except C. chinchilla has a shorter tail, a thicker neck and shoulders, and shorter ears than C. lanigera. The former species is currently facing extinction; the latter, though rare, can be found in the wild. Domesticated chinchillas are thought to have come from the C. lanigera species.
In their native habitats, chinchillas live in burrows or crevices in rocks. They are agile jumpers and can jump up to 6 ft (1.8 m). Predators in the wild include birds of prey, skunks, felines, snakes and canines. Chinchillas have a variety of defensive tactics, including spraying urine and releasing fur if bitten. In the wild, chinchillas have been observed eating plant leaves, fruits, seeds, and small insects.
In nature, chinchillas live in social groups that resemble colonies, but are properly called herds. They can breed any time of the year. Their gestation period is 111 days, longer than most rodents. Due to this long pregnancy, chinchillas are born fully furred and with eyes open. Litters are usually small in number, predominantly two.
Roles with humans
The international trade in chinchilla fur goes back to the 16th century. Their fur is popular in the fur trade due to its extremely soft feel, which is caused by the sprouting of 60 hairs from each hair follicle, on average. The color is usually very even, which makes it ideal for small garments or the lining of large garments, though some large garments can be made entirely from the fur. A single, full-length coat made from chinchilla fur may require as many as 150 pelts, as chinchillas are relatively small. Their use for fur led to the extinction of one species, and put serious pressure on the other two. Though it is illegal to hunt wild chinchillas, the wild animals are now on the verge of becoming extinct because of continued illegal hunting. Domesticated chinchillas are still bred for this use.
Chinchillas as pets
Chinchillas require extensive exercise. Their teeth need to be worn down, as they grow continuously and can prevent them from eating if they become overgrown. Wooden sticks, pumice stone and chew toys are good options, but conifer and citrus woods (such as cedar or orange) should be avoided because of the high content of resins, oils and phenols that are toxic for chinchillas. Birch, willow, apple, manzanita or kiln-dried pine woods are all safe for chinchillas to chew.
Chinchillas lack the ability to sweat; therefore, if temperatures get above 25°C (80°F), they could get overheated and may suffer from heat stroke. Chinchillas dissipate heat by routing blood to their large ears, so red ears signal overheating.
Chinchillas can be found in a variety of colors. The only color found in nature is standard gray. The most common other colors are white, black velvet, beige, ebony, violet, and sapphire, and blends of these. 
The animals instinctively clean their fur by taking dust baths, in which they roll around in special dust made of fine pumice. In the wild, the dust is formed from fine, ground volcanic rocks. The dust gets into their fur and absorbs oil and dirt. These baths are needed a few times a week. Chinchillas do not bathe in water because the dense fur prevents air-drying, retaining moisture close to the skin, which can cause fungus growth or fur rot. A wet chinchilla must be dried immediately with towels and a no-heat hair dryer. The thick fur resists parasites, such as fleas, and reduces loose dander, making chinchillas hypoallergenic.
Chinchillas eat and drink in very small amounts. In the wild, they eat and digest desert grasses, so cannot efficiently process fatty or high protein foods, or too many green plants. A high quality, hay-based pellet and a constant supply of loose timothy hay will meet all of their dietary needs. Chinchillas' very sensitive gastrointestinal tracts can be easily disrupted, so a healthy diet is important. In a mixed ration, chinchillas may avoid the healthy, high-fiber pellets in favor of items such as raisins and seeds. Fresh vegetables and fruit (with high moisture content) should be avoided, as these can cause bloat, which can be fatal. Sweets and dried fruit treats should be limited to one per day, at the very most. This can lead to diarrhea, or in the long term, diabetes. Nuts should be avoided due to their high fat content. High protein foods and alfalfa hay can cause liver problems and should be limited.
In scientific research
The chinchilla is often used as an animal model in researching the auditory system, because the chinchilla's range of hearing (20 Hz to 30 kHz) and cochlear size is close to that of a human, and the chinchilla cochlea is fairly easy to access. Other research fields in which chinchillas are used as an animal model include the study of Chagas disease, gastrointestinal diseases, pneumonia, and listeriosis, as well as of Yersinia and Pseudomonas infections.
The first scientific study on chinchilla sounds in their social environment was conducted by Dr. Bartl DVM in Germany.
- Viscacha, a rodent similar to a chinchilla
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