Its really helpful to understand about the physiology and behaviours of a wild chinchilla when getting to know your pet.
The reason is that domestic chinchillas still have many of the instincts, characteristics and attributes that wild chinchillas have.
So here we are looking at the nature and charachter of chinchillas, where they come from, their history, how they have come to be around today, and their growth in popularity as pets.
Where does the ‘name’ Chinchilla come from?
The name of the chinchilla was given to these unique rodents by the Spanish who first came across them during their first visits to the Americas in the 1500s.
The name comes from the Chincha India Tribe and literally means ‘little chincha’.
Where do chinchillas originate from?
All domesticated chinchillas are thought to come from the long-tailed chinchilla, scientifically called ‘chinchilla lanigera’.
They were once thought to be a single species when they first discovered, however since then, taxonomists have recognised the short-tailed chinchilla called ‘chinchilla brevicaudata’ as a totally separate species.
How many species of Chinchilla are there?
As previously mentioned, Chinchillas today are split into two species.
Those chinchillas that are kept as pets are thought to have descended from long tailed chinchillas (chinchilla lanigera) and is a species only found on Cordillera de la Costa and the Andea slopes of Chile.
In order to increase their number, a protected area known as then Las Chinchillas National reserve has been set up in the region to help increase their population. There are thought to be only 5500 individuals remaining in the area.
Even more endangered is the long tailed chinchilla(chinchilla brevicaudata). This species is also protected and is thought to have died out Laca National park but there are populations remaining in Bolivia. It was thought that they had died out in the 1970s but were rediscovered in the mid 70s in Chile.
Where do Chinchillas live in the wild?
They reside in the heights of the Andes Mountains in South America from Peru, Bolicia, Chile and Argentina. These heights be up to 16500 feet (5000 metres).
They are known to reside in rocky outcrops, and dig underground burrows in which to make their homes. In these burrows, they will take shelter from the extreme temeperatures and they help to keep them cool and give them added protection from the cold. They can often share these burrows with other species of animal such as chinchilla rats which are a totally different species compared to chinchillas, but do share similar charachteristics. Despite this, chinchillas do not breed with other animals and keep to themselves.
How do Chinchillas survive in the wild?
They are renown for the lush fur that gives them protection and enables them to survive bitterly cold night temperatures in the mountains but also give them protection from the heat of the day.
Chinchillas are crepusucular by their nature which means that they will only emerge from their burrows when they are searching for food. This tends to be more when darkness falls. You can tell that they are crepusucular by their large eyes which help them to navigate their dark burrows.
They are quite reluctant to stray to far from their burrows so that they can run back when they sense danger.
Chinchillas are prey animals which means that they are always looking out for predators who might seek to catch and eat them. Predators include birds of prey, snakes and other larger creatures found in the Andes mountains. Owls in particular have very good night time vision and present a great threat to chinchillas and are able to fly siliently and then swoop down without any particular warning.
They often live closely in the wild to a large terrestrial bromeliad plant which is known as cardon (puya berteronuaba).
They are social creatures and tend to live together in colonies. These colonies have been known to number in their thousands but nowadays they are much smaller and a colony will number no more than 500 chinchillas with most colonies numbering up to 50 individuals.
By living in colonies, chinchillas give themselves another layer of protection and a chance of survival. They are able to work together using their eyes and ears to detect the presence of predators such as foxes that will seek to prey on them.
Chinchillas are shy by their nature and so can be diffficult to track and count, and their lifestyle helps them to avoid being detected.
As previously mentioned, chinchillas have thick fur that is a shade of grey. This serves to help them blend in with their rocky outcrop surroundings and to evade predators as well.
They also have large ears which help them to detect any approaching danger particularly as their hearing is very sensitive. This makes the chinchilla quite a nervous creature in the wild, something that it is quite charchterisitic of prey animals.
They also have large whiskers that help them orientate themselves in the darkness where they live. These whiskers are quite thick and have sensory functions that allow them to work out whether they can get through a particular gap.
Chinchillas have small front legs compared to their hind legs. This is because their rely on their hind legs when they move around. The lower part of their hind legs are fur-free and the upper part is strong and muscular, which allows them to run faster if they need to.
They are very agile creatures and are able to jump and hop very well. They enjoy climbing rocks and other rocky outcrops where they live and use their front legs well to this effect. As their habitat tends to be often steeply sloped, their front legs can serve them well to this end and help them to move around quickly whilst keeping their balance.
They are able to support their weight on their hind legs and so can get a good view of their surroudnings by sitting on them, and thus keep alert for predators. They have a furred tail which helps them keep balance when they are sitting or standing in this way. The fur on their tail tends to be much more coarse than on their body.
They have front paws and are often used much like our fingers and allow a chinchilla to pick up food and groom themselves on a regular basis.
Who are Chinchillas related to?
Chinchillas belong to a group of rodents which are known as caviomorphs and because of this are related to guinea pigs and capybaras.
Because of this they share a number of characteristics with them as well.
One of the things that characterises caviomorphs from myomophs, which are rats and mice, are their breeding habits.
How do Chinchillas Breed
They tend to have small litters which are born after long periods of gestation.
This period of gestation can last around four months.
When they are born, the young look much like their parents, only smaller. They are born developed with their eyes open and able to move around. They are also quite large creatures.
Myomorphs on the other hand are much smaller, breed much more quickly and are born naked and helpless.
How long do Chinchillas live for?
Chinchillas can live up to 20 years, which means that they develop much more slowly than other species of pet rodent. They are unlikely to mature until that are at least aged seven months.
How are Chinchillas being protected?
Chinchillas are now strictly protected and protected from the fur trade. However, the risk comes from habitat changes and surviving colonies becoming at risk from becoming isolated in small enclaves because they are not able to move into toher areas and form new colonies with neighboruing chinchilas. It then makes it difficult for any increase in numbers to take place.
Chinchillas do not reproduce quickly and so any increase in population happens slowly.
Today, there are groups established to ensure that chinchilla populations are conservced for the future and that the two species survive. They do this by education and involving landowers in conservation projects.
Chinchillas first came to human attention during the times of the Incas in pre-columbian times.
They were notcied for their silky, thick coats which were used to produce garments. They were also known as a good source of food.
When the spanish arrived in the americas in the 1500s they noted the garments that the native Incas were wearing and brought the chinchilla fur back to the European continent. It was highly regarded and desired by noblemen and royalty.
However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that chinchilla fur massively grew in popularity which resulted in a surge of chinchilla hunting.
Records suggest that between 1860 and 1916 there were around 7 million pelts that were exported from Chile and many more were wiped out during this time.
As trade grew, so the populations of Chinchillas declined and were on the verge of extinction post world war one.
Many attempts were made to farm chinchillas during this time, in particular Mathas F.Chapman who was a mining engineer made attempts to breed chinchillas and despite many failed attempts he successfully quired 11 breeding chinchillas and transferred his brood back to California where they were bred and increased in number.
Their fur was then used to produce garments worm by the rich and famous. It is said that as many as 150 pelts were needed to produce a single coat.
How have Chinchillas developed in popularity?
Chinchillas did not attract attention as pets until the 1960s as they were recognised as their suitability as companion animals. Their attractiveness, cleanliness and consistent grooming habits made them an obvious pet for people looking for something new in their homes.
The popularity has since grown and are now kept as pets throughout the world. However, because of their slow reproductive rate¸they are still costly pets to own.
But as they have become more domesticated, more colour variants have developed and given more focus for breeders to develop new breeds of chinchillas. This is to the extent that there are now chinchilla breeding shows for those chinchilla keppers who enjoy showing their broods.
Showing chinchillas involves them being assessed against breed standards that include the desirable features that judges need to be looking for regarding their appearance, coloration, and breed type.