Chinchillas are currently restricted to the mountains of northern Chile.
Chinchillas are found in the barren, arid areas of mountains at elevations of 9,800 feet to over 16,000 feet. These animals den in crevices and holes among the rocks.
Chinchillas have a head and body length of about 9 to 15 inches, and a tail averaging 3 to 6 inches in length. The species is sexually dimorphic with the female weighing up to 800 grams and the male only 500 grams.
The fur of members of this species is extremely dense and soft to keep them warm at their high elevation habitat. Each hair usually has a black tip, and as many as 60 hairs grow out of one follicle.
Female chinchillas are mostly monogamous. The breeding season occurs between November and May in the Northern Hemisphere and between May and November in the Southern Hemisphere. Females normally have two litters per year, with two to three young per litter. The gestation period lasts for 111 days, and the young are precocial meaning they are well-developed at birth. The newborn chinchillas weigh up to 35 grams and are fully furred, and have their eyes open. Lactation lasts for 6-8 weeks and sexual maturity is attained after 8 months.
Life span in the wild for chinchillas is roughly 10 years, but some domesticated chinchillas have lived for over 20 years.
Female chinchillas are the dominant sex and are very aggressive toward one another and toward males during estrus. Despite this aggressiveness, serious fighting in the wild is rare. Chinchillas express threats through growling, chattering their teeth, and urinating. Chinchillas are social animals and have been known to live in colonies of more than 100 individuals. They are primarily nocturnal with crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn) activity peaks. However, chinchillas have been observed on sunny days to be sitting in front of its hole and climbing and jumping on the rocks with amazing agility. Domesticated chinchillas are very social and can be hand tamed to play and interact with their owner.
Chinchillas are primarily herbivorous feeding on many types of vegetation, but primarily on grass and seeds. They may occasionally eat insects and bird eggs opportunistically. While eating, chinchillas sit erect and hold food in their forepaws.
Domesticated chinchillas are fed alfalfa, hay, wheat, corn, oats, and commercial food pellets.
IUCN Red List:
IUCN lists Chinchilla lanigera as vulnerable. Chinchillas are now protected by law in their natural habitat, yet hunting of this animal for its fur continues in remote areas, which makes enforcement hard. Populations of chinchillas have also dwindled because of burning and harvesting of the algarobilla shrub in the lower altitudes. Fewer than 10,000 chinchillas are thought to have survived in the wild, and attempts to reintroduce chinchillas into the wild have failed. Today, hundreds of chinchillas are bred commercially.
Chinchillas have been hunted for human apparel since the early 1900s. Around 1900, estimated 500,000 chinchilla skins were exported annually from Chile. Chinchilla pelts are considered by some to be the most valuable pelt in the world, and coats have been sold for as much as $100,000.
The Incas and Native Americans of Chile have harvested chinchillas since pre-Columbian times. Chinchillas were plentiful at this time, and one author reported that one could see as many as 1,000 animals in one day.
Chinchillas were first bred in captivity at the end of the 19th century, but it was not until 1920 that commercial breeding began. Domesticated chinchillas have been described as smarter than the average rabbit and more fun than rats. They memorize trails and have good memories. Chinchillas are very shy animals but are trusting of their owners.
Hendricks, C. 2002. “Chinchilla lanigera” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed January 08, 2007 at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Chinchilla_lanigera.html.