The Chinchilla is a rodent that looks like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. A little larger than a guinea pig, the average weight of a chinchilla is between 1 and 4 pounds. In captivity, their life expectancy is around 10 to 20 years. In the wild, the lifespan is in the range of 10 to 15 years. As herbivores, their diet consists of grasses, berries, and plants.
The two types of chinchillas are the chinchilla brevicaudata and the chinchilla lanigera. The chinchilla brevicaudata has a distinctly shorter tail and smaller ears. The typical chinchilla found in homes as a pet is a chinchilla lanigera. The latter is smaller with a noticeably smaller head and neck, and a slimmer body shape. The chinchilla brevicaudata is very rare and nearing extinction. A third type of chinchilla, the giant chinchilla, is now extinct.
Chinchillas originate from the Andes Mountains of Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina in South America. They will make their homes in the rocky crevices of the mountainside. Their incredible ability to jump helps them navigate the rocky terrain, and a thick coat of fur protects them from the cold. A chinchilla’s main defense against predators is its amazing agility and speed. The chinchilla is a social animal and will be found living in herds as large as 100. The name chinchilla, or “little chincha” comes from the people of South America with the same name. The Chincha were known for hunting chinchillas for food and wearing the pelts.
With over 60 hairs per root, the fur is incredibly soft and thick. In their natural habitat, chinchillas will roll in volcanic ash and fine dust to soak up oil and dirt that collects in the fur. Chinchilla fur is still used for clothing in today’s society. Coats made from chinchillas are high priced and considered a luxury. Chinchilla farms, or ranches, are common around the world for this reason. The demand for fur led to the extinction of the giant chinchilla and the rarity of the chinchilla brevicaudata.
The first chinchillas in North America are said to have been brought by Mathias Chapman in 1918. There is debate about whether Mathias Chapman was looking to save the chinchillas from extinction or if he was a businessman looking for an opportunity. He managed to capture 11 chinchillas and export them to the U.S. One of the original animals died on the voyage to California. From the chinchillas that made the trip, Mathias Chapman started the first chinchilla ranch in the United States.