The Chinchilla is Hairy, Lairy, and its Situation Scary

Stroking your lover’s hair can be romantic. For a chinchilla, pulling it is downright erotic.

Of hair-raising value…

That’s not surprising, because everyone wants chinchilla fur apparently. With up to 60 more hairs per follicle than humans, it’s one of the fluffiest animals in the world, and in the 1920s a full coat could fetch $100,000. None of the proceeds went to the many chinchillas used to make one, of course, but if they could have, they would have probably spent them on luxurious dust baths. A chinchilla needs one daily to keep its coat healthy, because if it gets wet, it can’t do a thing with it. It may seem like an odd choice of clothing, but it makes perfect sense in sub-zero temperatures at up to 6,000m (19,000ft) up in the Andes.

…and status

Seeing chinchillas in your local pet shop can be deceptive. Only one of the two species, the long-tailed chinchilla, has ever been bred as a pet, and both it and the short-tailed are endangered in the wild. They were thought extinct until the 60s and early 2000s respectively (I refuse to call it the “noughties”), but have since been rediscovered in Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Aside from near-annihilation for their fur, habitat destruction has given them a beating, and although captive breeding is banging, release is a different matter.

Too close to home?

All captive chinchillas are descended from just 11 individuals sent to the US in 1927, and if you’re bred to have thick and floofy fur, it might give you a thick and goofy brain, even without any dodgy inbreeding. Those released to the wild so far haven’t been able to mingle, and what’s more, they have blue-grey rather than the yellow-grey mottled coats of their ancestors, which probably doesn’t help camouflage when snakes, dogs or eagles swing by.

Its coat is so blue, in fact, it even affects the lighting.

Its only hope is restored or protected areas in parts of Peru and Chile, and its equal skill at breeding in the wild.

Pop and drop

Both species live in colonies as dense as their fur, often numbering in the hundreds. The females are bigger and gruffier and have kits twice a year, born fluffy with open eyes and able to run within hours, and while they mate for life, the males enjoy a free for all with multiple ladies. As well as hair-pulling, flirtation can descend into aggression, with females grunting and even urinating at their mate and others. Speaking of, um, excretions, to top up healthy belly bacteria, the chinchilla sometimes chomps on its droppings. Live yoghurts suddenly don’t seem so bad.

Sound dangerous?

“Hear’s” another unpleasant fact for you: because it has similar hearing to humans and an easily accessible inner ear, it’s the top pick for auditory animal research. So you can’t blame it for being shy, mostly nocturnal, and living at high altitudes. Perhaps it should take a leaf out of its cousin the porcupine’s book, and hone its fur into deadly spikes? Then we could call it a “chinquilla”, or a “chinkilla”. If there isn’t already a B movie about that, there probably will be now.

TLDR

LatinChinchilla chinchilla (short-tailed) / Chinchilla lanigera (long-tailed); it means “little Chincha” after people of the Andes

What? Floofy rodent that looks half-rabbit half-squirrel

Where? Desert or rocky areas in southern Peru (long-tailed only), Bolivia, Chile, possibly parts of northwest Argentina; also probably your local pet shop

How big? Head and body up to 38 cm / 15 inches long, tail up to 15 cm / 5.9 inches long

Endangered? Yes, both the short-tailed and long-tailed chinchilla are endangered, despite the number of pets.

Probable motto: I can be as huffy as I am fluffy.

They look adorable. Do they need my help at all?

Yes, although both species are legally protected, they’re still endangered due to lasting effects of hunting, and ongoing poaching and habitat destruction. Captive release hasn’t worked so far, so all we can really do is help the wild populations and restore some of their habitat.

Save the Wild Chinchillas arranges local restoration as well as education projects in Chile.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Avery, Roger et al. 2002. International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Third Edition. Marshall Cavendish Corporation.

Bradford, Alina. 2014. “Chinchilla facts“. LiveScience.

Chinchilla“. No date. Minnesota Zoo.

Chinchilla“. No date. The Zoo:Louisville.

Chinchilla – an overview“. No date. ScienceDirect.

Chinchilla chinchilla“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Chinchilla lanigera“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Chinchilla? What’s a chinchilla?” No date. Museum of Arts and Sciences.

Delgado, Eliseo et al. 2018. “Rediscovery of the chinchilla in Bolivia“. Oryx 52(1):13-14.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Chinchilla“. Britannica.com.

Long-tailed chinchilla“. No date. Saint Louis Zoo.

Long-tailed chinchilla“. No date. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Featured image credit: AttilaBarsan

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