Temporal range: 0Ma Recent
|Range of Chinchilla lanigera and Chinchilla chinchilla.
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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