What is a chinchilla?

Chinchilla lanigera

In the past years chinchillas have become very popular pets, especially among children. In spite of this, many people still don't know what is a chinchilla. Chinchillas are rabbit-sized, crepuscular rodents native to the Andes mountains in South America. Along with their relatives, viscachas, they belong to the family Chinchillidae. According to their scientific classification they belong to the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, class Mammalia, order Rodentia, family Chinchillidae, genus Chinchilla. There are two living species of chinchilla, Chinchilla brevicaudata and Chinchilla lanigera. There is little noticeable difference between the species except that the Chinchilla brevicaudata has a shorter tail, a thicker neck and shoulders, and shorter ears. This species is currently facing extinction. The Chinchilla lanigera species, though rare, can be found in the wild. Domestic chinchillas are thought to come from the lanigera species. The Giant Chinchilla species has been hunted to extinction.

History of the chinchillas

The animal (whose name literally means "little Chincha") is named after the Chincha people of the Andes, who wore its soft and dense fur. By the end of the 19th century, chinchillas had become quite rare due to hunting for their fur.

The first literature reference to chinchillas dates back to 1591 in a book published in Seville, entitled Historia Natural y Moral de los Indios, written by Father Josef de Acosta: (from Spanish) "About mountain animals. Chinchillas are another type of small animals such as squirrels. They have a fur (coat) that is of wonderful softness.

One of the first ones to think of breeding chinchillas for profit was the Jesuit priest JUan Ignazio Molina, who was also the first who provided an accurate description of Chinchilla in 1810. There were repeated attempts to breed these animals in captivity. The first reliable report of successful breeding attempt in captivity comes from Frederico Albert (1900), who was director of the zoological and botanical research station at Santiago, Chile. He reports in his article "La Chinchilla" about a certain Francisco Irrazaval in Santiago who had received a pair of chinchillas (presumably Chinchilla lanigera) in 1895. The first chinchilla was born that same year and the pair continued to produce 2 litters a year until the outbreak of an epidemic during the summer of 1896 ruined this excellent breeding success, and all the animals, 13 at that time, died within a period of two months.

Mathias F. Chapman, a mining engineer from California, was working in Chile in 1918 when he purchased a chinchilla as a pet and took a liking to it. He envisioned raising a whole herd of chinchillas and he applied to the Chilean government for permission to capture and transport several animals to the US. At this point, chinchillas were already close to extinction from humans killing them for the fur trade. The Chilean government was reluctant to grant trapping permission, but Chapman persisted, and eventually the government allowed him to catch them.

Chapman and a group of men searched the mountain for three years and caught only eleven chinchillas. He then took the 12,000 foot climb down over a period of twelve months so the chinchillas could acclimate to the changing environment. He then brought the eleven wild chinchillas he had captured to the United States for breeding, where he started the first chinchilla farm. Only three of these chinchillas were female. This was the beginning of the domestic chinchilla. Since the mid-1960s, chinchillas have become increasingly popular as house pets.


Native environment

In their native habitat, chinchillas live in burrows or crevices in rocks. They are agile jumpers and can jump very high, up to 5 feet. Predators in the wild include hawks, skunks, felines and canines. In the wild chinchillas have been observed eating plants, fruits, seeds and small insects, though this diet could irritate the digestive system of a domestic chinchilla whose diet should be primarily hay-based.

In nature, chinchillas live in colonies. Chinchilla females are significantly bigger than males. Chinchillas can breed any time of the year. At 111 days, they have a very long gestation period compared to other rodents. Due to this long pregnancy, chinchillas are born fully furred and with eyes open. Litters are usually small in number, predominantly twins.

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