Chinchilla Facts

Scientific Name: Chinchilla chinchilla and Chinchilla lanigera

Adult domestic chinchilla

 Seregraff / Getty Images

The chinchilla is a South American rodent that has been hunted to near-extinction for its luxurious, velvety fur. However, one species of chinchilla was bred in captivity starting at the end of the 19th century. Today, domesticated chinchillas are kept as playful, intelligent pets.

Fast Facts: Chinchilla

  • Scientific Name: Chinchilla chinchilla and C. lanigera
  • Common Name: Chinchilla
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 10-19 inches
  • Weight: 13-50 ounces
  • Lifespan: 10 years (wild); 20 years (domestic)
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: Andes of Chile
  • Population: 5,000
  • Conservation Status: Endangered

Species

The two species of chinchilla are the short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla chinchilla, formerly called C. brevicaudata) and the long-tailed chinchilla (C. lanigera). The short-tailed chinchilla has a shorter tail, thicker neck, and shorter ears than the long-tailed chinchilla. The domesticated chinchilla is believed to have descended from the long-tailed chinchilla.

Description

The defining characteristic of a chinchilla is its soft, dense fur. Each hair follicle has between 60 and 80 hairs growing from it. Chinchillas have large dark eyes, rounded ears, long whiskers, and furry 3 to 6-inch tails. Their back legs are more than twice as long as their front legs, making them agile jumpers. While chinchillas appear bulky, most of their size comes from their fur. Wild chinchillas have mottled yellowish gray fur, while domestic animals may be black, white, beige, charcoal, and other colors. The short-tailed chinchilla ranges from 11 to 19 inches in length and weighs between 38 and 50 ounces. The long-tailed chinchilla may reach a length up to 10 inches. Wild long-tailed chinchilla males weigh slightly more than a pound, while females weigh slightly less. Domestic long-tail chinchillas are heavier, with males weighing up to 21 ounces and females weighing up to 28 ounces.

Habitat and Distribution

At one time, chinchillas lived in the Andes mountains and along the coasts of Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, and Chile. Today, the only wild colonies are found in Chile. Wild chinchillas inhabit cold, dry climates, primarily at elevations between 9,800 and 16,400 feet. They live in rocky crevices or burrows in the ground.

Map of chinchilla range
Distribution of two chinchilla species in 1986. Amerique_du_Sud.svg: Cephas / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license

Diet

Wild chinchillas eat seeds, grasses, and fruit. Although they are considered to be herbivores, they may consume small insects. Domestic chinchillas are usually fed grass and kibble specially formulated for their dietary needs. Chinchillas eat much like squirrels. They hold food in their fore paws, while sitting upright on their hind limbs.

domestic chinchilla holding food with arms
domestic chinchilla holding food with arms. olgagorovenko / Getty Images

Behavior

Chinchillas live in social groups called herds that consist of 14 to 100 individuals. They are largely nocturnal, so they can avoid hot daytime temperatures. They take dust baths to keep their fur dry and clean. When threatened, a chinchilla may bite, shed fur, or eject a spray of urine. Chinchillas communicate using a wide variety of sounds, which include grunts, barks, squeals, and chirps.

Reproduction and Offspring

Chinchillas can mate at any time of the year. Gestation is unusually long for a rodent and lasts 111 days. The female may give birth to a litter of up 6 kits, but usually one or two offspring are born. The kits are fully furred and can open their eyes when they are born. Kits are weaned between 6 and 8 weeks of age and sexually mature at 8 months of age. Wild chinchillas may live 10 years, but domestic chinchillas can live over 20 years.

Baby chinchilla
Chinchillas are born with fur and open eyes. Icealien / Getty Images

Conservation Status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the conservation status of both chinchilla species as "endangered." As of 2015, researchers estimated 5,350 mature long-tailed chinchillas remained in the wild, but their population was decreasing. As of 2014, two small populations of short-tailed chinchillas remained in the Antofagasta and Atacama regions of northern Chile. However, those populations were also decreasing in size.

Threats

Hunting and commercial harvesting of chinchillas has been banned since a 1910 treaty between Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. However, once the ban began to be enforced, prices of pelts skyrocketed and poaching brought the chinchilla to the brink of extinction. While poaching continues to be a significant threat to wild chinchillas, they are safer than before because captive chinchillas are bred for fur.

Other threats include illegal capture for the pet trade; habitat loss and degradation from mining, firewood collection, fires, and grazing; extreme weather from El Niño; and predation by foxes and owls.

Chinchillas and Humans

Chinchillas are valued for their fur and as pets. They are also bred for scientific research of the audio system and as model organisms for Chagas disease, pneumonia, and several bacterial diseases.

Sources

  • Jiménez, Jaime E. "The extirpation and current status of wild chinchillas Chinchilla lanigera and C. brevicaudata." Biological Conservation. 77 (1): 1–6, 1996. doi:10.1016/0006-3207(95)00116-6
  • Patton, James L.; Pardiñas, Ulyses F. J.; D'Elía, Guillermo. Rodents. Mammals of South America. 2. University of Chicago Press. pp. 765–768, 2015. ISBN 9780226169576.
  • Roach, N. & R. Kennerley. Chinchilla chinchilla. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T4651A22191157. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T4651A22191157.en
  • Roach, N. & R. Kennerley. Chinchilla lanigera (errata version published in 2017). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T4652A117975205. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T4652A22190974.en
  • Saunders, Richard. "Veterinary Care Of Chinchillas." In Practice (0263841X) 31.6 (2009): 282–291. Academic Search Complete