Chinchillas own the title of being the first rodents to become established in South America – they are an ancient species, dating back 41 million years!
Chinchillas were once found in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile; but unfortunately, due largely to over-hunting by man, they are now believed to be confined to Chile, where they inhabit the Andes region. They live in groups called herds, where they enjoy social interaction and safety in numbers. Their preferred dwelling spots are burrows or hollows in rocks, where they can escape from danger if needs be.
There are two species of Chinchillas: long tailed and short tailed. They are described as crepuscular mammals, which means that they are most active at dawn and dusk and are also active nocturnally. Therefore, their quiet, restful time would be in the middle of the day.
Chinchillas are reasonably chunky rodents and are considered more robust than ground squirrels. They come in at 9-15 inches (23-38cm) in length, with their tails adding an extra 3-6 inches (8-15cm). They can weigh 1-2Ibs (0.5-1kg) – so they’re not to be messed with! That said, they generally have little aggression and can be active and playful pets. They are extremely agile and are able to jump up to 6ft (almost 2m) high – that’s some going!
Chinchilla teeth keep right on growing throughout their lives and so it’s important that they have chewing material, such as wood, to help keep their teeth in check. Another characteristic is that they don’t sweat and therefore need to be kept in a temperature that isn’t too warm for them. If they are feeling like taking a refreshing bath – then it won’t be in water – no, Chinchillas don’t do water! Instead, they take dust baths, which is their method for keeping that fur in peak condition.
Chinchillas like to munch on plant leaves, fruit, seeds and sometimes insects (in the wild). Conversely, they in turn, are on the menu for a variety of species, including owls, hawks, wild cats, snakes, skunks and wild dogs; so, it’s no wonder that they’ve learned to release fur when caught as a means of escape. They will also resort to squirting urine to put off would-be predators (would sure put me off!)
The Chinchilla gestation period is quite long for rodents at 111 days and the youngsters are born with fur and open eyes – typically only about two in a litter.
So, what is so special about Chinchilla fur? Well, it is the densest fur of any land mammal and is second only to Otter fur for density. They have 60 hairs growing from each hair follicle – no mean feat!
As mentioned, sadly, due to their wonderfully soft coats, Chinchillas have become the prey of the deadliest hunter of all – man. From the 1500s they were being hunted for their fur and as time has gone on, their numbers in the wild have dwindled to the point of collapse, with short tailed Chinchillas facing extinction and long tailed Chinchillas extremely rare.
Shockingly, Chinchillas are still reared for fur production, being bred in fur farms. Much campaigning has helped to reduced what is, in my opinion, this cruel and outdated practice. Hopefully, these will soon be a thing of the past altogether.
Whilst Chinchillas are in a precarious situation in the wild, there is a strong population that are kept domestically. It is the long-tailed variety of Chinchillas that are kept as pets, with a fellow called Mathias Chapman bringing a mere 11 of these critters into the USA in 1923. It is thought that almost all pets in the USA today are descended from these pioneering 11.
Although silver coloured in the wild, pet Chinchillas can be found in a number of colours including, silver, yellow grey, blue grey, white, beige and black.
When I look at a picture of a Chinchilla, they look so cute and cuddly to me; however, I’m reliably informed that these cuties aren’t really into cuddling and that they can be rather highly strung, so it’s important not to stress them. They will display affection to their owners, whilst maintaining that independent air.
Chinchillas are long livers for rodents and can make it up to 15 years old, which is as much as a larger pet. They need the correct environment – a large enclosure, with wood shavings on the floor, as their feet won’t like metal and plastic is too chewable!
Their playful nature means they appreciate toys and they will use exercise wheels and also enjoy hammocks, which they favour both for play and for taking a snooze in – who knew!
So, although they may not be the first rodent that springs to mind, there’s a lot more to Chinchillas than you might think – let’s cherish these smart critters.