Lee Richardson Zoo


Order Rodentia - rodents, mice, rats

Family Chinchillidae - Viscachas and Chinchillas

Scientific Name:  Chinchilla lanigera


Head and body length is 9-15 inches, while the tail is 3-6 inches long.  Adult females weigh up to 28 oz. while the smaller male usually weighs around 17 oz.  In the wild, fur ranges in color from bluish, pearl, to brownish-gray on the top (usually with a black tip) and buff color on the underparts.  In captivity, chinchillas have been bred with colors ranging from white to black and everything in between.  The fur is very silky and soft with 60-100 hairs per follicle.  The fur is at least 1” long (so deep, fleas cannot penetrate it).  The tail is completely furred and the top section of the tail has coarse guard hairs.  The head is broad with large external ears.  The inner ear canal is extremely large, and acts as a resonating chamber to improve hearing underground.  The large black eyes have a vertically slit pupil.  Vestigial cheek pouches are present.  Both the short forepaw and the narrow hind foot have four digits each.  Hind legs are long and strong, giving good jumping agility.


Home Range:  Andes Mountains of northern Chile.


Habitat Type:  Elevations from 9,900-16,500 feet. They shelter in rock crevices or small burrows.


Reproduction:   The breeding season in the wild lasts from May-November (in captivity in the Northern Hemisphere, it is from November-May).  During this time, two litters (rarely three) may be born.  Gestation lasts about 111 days with 1-6 (usually 2-3) young born fully furred, with their eyes open, and a full set of teeth.  Young nurse for 6-8 weeks.  Maturity for both sexes is reached as early as 5 ½ months, but is more typically reached at 8 months.  Female chinchillas can be very aggressive to other females, as well as males. 


Diet in the Wild:  Any available vegetation including coarse, dry grass, lichens and mosses.  They hold food in their front paws to eat.  Usually found near water


Diet in the Zoo:  Rabbit pellets, apples, carrots, and kale or lettuce sprinkled with vitamins.


General Information:  Though most active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular), chinchillas are also active during the day (diurnal).  Two species are found in the Andes mountains, the Long-tailed chinchilla, and the larger Short-tailed chinchilla.  They live in social groups numbering from a few animals up to 80.  Living in the cold temps of high elevations, chinchillas avoid wet baths (licking or otherwise).  Instead, they roll in silica sand (AKA chinchilla dust), a grey baby powder-like substance.  It absorbs oils on the fur, and loosens dirt, thereby cleaning the coat without causing the chinchilla to become wet.  Clean fur insulates better than dirty.  After letting a class or two of children touch a chinchilla, it is often easy to see the oil left on its back from their hands.
            The extremely soft fur is an adaptation to burrow life, as soft fur is less apt to be lost if rubbed in multiple directions by burrow walls.  Soft fur is typical of other burrowing animals (rabbits, gophers, moles, etc.)


Conservation Status:  Chinchilla fur has been used for human clothing since the time of the Incas.  Incas wove chinchilla hair into a very soft cloth, and used the delicate chinchilla skins to line mantles and cloaks.  When Spaniards conquered the Inca Empire in 1527, chinchilla fur was taken to the courts of Europe where it became so popular it was deemed the “royal fur”.  As its popularity increased across Europe, population numbers began to decline in South America. As late as 1900, 500,000 pelts were exported annually from Chile alone.  Reports from the 18th and early 19th century claim that chinchillas were so numerous, a person could see 1,000 of them on a single trip to the Andes.  By the turn of the 20th century, they were very rare in the wild.  It has been illegal since the 1920s to export or sell fur from wild chinchillas—a law that probably saved the species from extinction. 
Chinchillas traditionally lived in colonies numbering around 100, but declines in wild populations have probably reduced colony size significantly.  Today, accurate population estimates are not available, as the remoteness of their habitat makes research difficult, but the short tailed species is listed as endangered.  In 1923, 12 chinchillas (8.4) were taken into captivity for breeding purposes.  All chinchillas in captivity today are descendants of these individuals.  Though they have been protected in the wild for nearly 100 years, unconfirmed reports state that as late as 1981, coats made from wild caught chinchillas were available in Japan.  A full-length coat can cost up to $100,000.00, and requires 300-350 animals to make.   Reintroduction efforts of these rodents have so far been unsuccessful.  The wild population is listed by IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered and CITES appendix l.


Predators:   No specific information found, but probably birds of prey.



Encyclopedia of Mammals, Second Edition. Dr. Edwin Gould, Ed. et al.  1998. Academic Press. San Diego, CA.  Pp.214-227.

Walker’s Mammals of the World, Volume II, Sixth Edition.  Ronald M. Nowak. 1999. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland.  Pp. 1659, 1662-1663.

Wildlife Fact File, Mammals # 278. Packet 65.

The Story of Domestication:  Wild Ancestors and Relatives of Domestic Animals.Donna Fitzroy Hardy, Elliot McIntire. 1991.  California State University, Northridge. Pp.79-80.