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Fossil range: Recent
File:Chin resting on sofa.JPG
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Family: Chinchillidae
Genus: Chinchilla
Bennett, 1829
Range map of Chinchilla species. Red dots = Last known families (Ch. lanigera).
Range map of Chinchilla species.
Red dots = Last known families (Ch. lanigera).

Chinchilla lanigera
Chinchilla brevicaudata

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.


The animal (whose name literally means "little Chincha") is named after the Chincha people of the Andes, who wore its soft and dense fur.[1] By the end of the 19th century, chinchillas had become quite rare due to hunting for their fur. Most chinchillas currently used by the fur industry for clothing and other accessories are farm-raised.[2]

The first literature reference to chinchillas dates back to 1590 in a book published in Seville, entitled Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias, written by Father José 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".[3]

One of the first people to think of breeding chinchillas for profit was the Jesuit priest Juan Ignacio Molina, who was also the first person to provide 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] Since the mid-1960s, chinchillas have become increasingly popular as house pets.

Native environment

File:Habitat du Chinchilla lanigera - Auco.jpg

Andean Chinchilla habitat in Chile.

Chinchilla originate in the Andes Mountains of South America where they inhabit rock crevices.The origin of wild chinchillas is in the gigantic mountains of the Andes; in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina chinchillas are at home. In this barren area, chinchillas live in crevices and rocky burrows, under extreme climatic conditions. They are subjected to considerable variations in temperature, long droughts as well as low humidity. They live on so-called puyas, among other things. Puya is a sort of plant which also serves as a source for water and nutrients and offers protection[6]

They are agile jumpers and can jump very high, up to 5 feet. Predators in the wild include hawks, skunks, felines, and canines. Chinchillas have a variety of defence tactics including spraying urine and releasing fur if bitten.[7] In the wild chinchillas have been observed eating plants, fruits, seeds, and small insects,[8] though this diet could irritate the digestive system of a domestic chinchilla whose diet should be primarily hay-based.[9]

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, predominately twins.[10]

Chinchilla species

File:Chinchillas- croquis comparatif.jpg

Comparison of Chinchilla species

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.[5] The Chinchilla lanigera species, though rare, can be found in the wild.[8] Domestic chinchillas are thought to come from the lanigera species.[11] The Giant Chinchilla species has been hunted to extinction.[12]

Fur industry

The international trade in chinchilla fur goes back to the 16th century. The fur from chinchillas is popular in the fur trade due to its extremely soft feel, because they have about 60 hairs sprouting from each hair follicle. The color is usually very even which makes it ideal for small garments or lining of large garments, though some large garments can be made entirely from the fur. The pelt of a chinchilla is relatively small, so many animals must be killed to make a single coat. This fact led to the extinction of one species, and put serious pressure on the other two. Though wild chinchillas are no longer hunted for their fur, domestic chinchillas are still bred for this use.[13]

Chinchillas as pets


Mosaic Chinchilla with dark gray marking

Domestic chinchillas can be kept as pets. Chinchillas are naturally skittish and are nocturnal, thus mostly active for play in the evening. They also have delicate bones and generally do not like to be held. Because of this they are not considered to be good pets for small children. However, Chinchillas can also be very friendly animals, making them excellent pets if their trust is earned by the owner. Also, unlike other small domestic rodents,[How to reference and link to summary or text] chinchillas' excretions are easy to clean up because of their small, dry nature.

Captive chinchillas commonly live 15 years, but some have been known to live up to 20 or more.[14]

Chinchillas make many noises, including barks, chirps, and squeaks. They use this variety of vocalisations to express themselves, from a calm, loving chirp given to a potential mate to a loud, aggressive bark when spooked.[15] Since they are active at night, it is not uncommon for them to vocalize in the early hours of the morning.

Chinchillas can be housed with others of the same sex, as long as they do not fight. Fighting or getting along depends on the individual animals. Conflict can be reduced provided the chinchillas are either introduced when young, or if older, are introduced gradually. Males and females will get along well, although they must be spayed or neutered to avoid reproduction.

Since chinchillas are very active animals, it is preferred to house them in a large enclosure, such as a room of their own instead of a small cage. If kept in a cage, the chinchillas should have a large area replete with shelves or other obstacles on which to play. The cage should be taller than it is wide, as the chinchilla's natural environment is very mountainous. Chinchillas also need other forms of stimulation, such hanging wooden toys, large wheels (over 16 inches in diameter and not constructed of mesh, as chinchilla legs and toes can easily get caught), or paper towel tubes. Wooden sticks and chew toys are also good options, but conifer woods (especially cedar) should be avoided because of high content of resins that are toxic for chinchillas. Birch, willow, apple tree or manzanita are all safe woods for chinchillas to chew.[16] Plastic in the cage should be avoided at all times. Chinchillas are often voracious chewers, and any ingested plastic can cause blockage in the intestines. As with most small animals, red cedar bedding should never be used due to its toxic nature.[17] The cage must have good air circulation. The chinchilla lacks the ability to sweat; therefore, if temperatures get above 25°C (77°F), the chinchilla could get overheated and may suffer from heat stroke.[18]

Active and inquisitive by nature, chinchillas need to spend some time outside of the cage (around half an hour a day and always supervised) to exercise and to satisfy their curiosity.


A Chinchilla holding a sticker that he just removed from a squash

Chinchillas can be found in a variety of colours including the standard grey (the only color found in nature), beige, ebony, and many others.[19] They instinctively clean their fur by taking dust baths several times a week, in which they roll around in a container full of special chinchilla dust made of sand or fine pumice. It is important that if a chinchilla should get wet to carefully dry them quickly because their fur retains the moisture and can grow fungus or rot if not dried quickly with a blow dryer on a low, cool setting OR preferably gently with a towel.[20]

Chinchillas have evolved to eat and digest desert grasses and cannot efficiently process fatty foods or too many green plants. A high quality, hay-based pellet and a constant supply of loose hay will sufficiently meet all of their dietary needs.[21] An occasional treat of a raisin or other dried fruit is fine, but can easily be overdone, leading to diarrhea, or in the long term, diabetes. Keep in mind that some Chinchilla feed includes raisins as part of the mix. Fresh vegetables (with high moisture content) should be avoided as these can cause bloat in a chinchilla, which can be fatal. Chinchillas also eat in very small amounts and do the same with drinking water. Therefore, overfeeding is easy.[22] Nuts should be avoided due to their high fat content.[23] A water bottle with fresh water should always be available.

In scientific research

Due to the fact that the chinchilla range of hearing (20 Hz to 30 kHz) is so close to that of a human, it is often used as an animal model in researching the auditory system.[24] Other research fields in which chinchilla is used as an animal model include study of Chagas disease, Gastrointestinal disorders, Pneumonia, Listeriosis, as well as of Yersinia and Pseudomonas infections.

See also

  • Viscacha


  1. What Is A Chinchilla?. Davidson Chinchillas. URL accessed on 2008-02-01.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bickel, Edmund (1987), Chinchilla Handbook, Neptune City, NJ: T.F.H. Publications, Inc., ISBN 0-86622-494-7 
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  5. 5.0 5.1
  7. Is a Chinchilla the pet for me?. Fantastic Chinchillas. URL accessed on 2008-02-01.
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