Chinchilla chinchillashort-tailed chinchilla

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Geographic Range

The range of Chinchilla chinchilla includes the Andes of southern Peru, Bolivia, northwestern Argentina and northern Chile.

Habitat

Short-tailed chinchillas are found in mountain shrub and grassland areas at elevations between 3000 and 4500 m. They make their dens in rock crevices.

Physical Description

Short-tailed chinchillas have a body length of 12 to 13 inches and a tail length of 5 to 6 inches. Females are typically larger than males. They may be distinguished from C. lanigera by its smaller ears and overall larger size. In addition, Chinchilla chinchilla has 20 tail vertebrae compared to 30 in C. lanigera.

The soft, dense fur of these chinchillas is due to the fact that each follicle has approximately 60 fine hairs growing from it. The coloration varies but typically consists of a bluish, pearl or gray upper coat with black tips on the hairs and a yellowish white underside. The tail is long and covered with coarse hairs. The thick fur helps protect chinchillas from cold temperatures as well as prevent water evaporation. The hairs are loosely attached, so the animals may escape from predators, like owls or foxes, leaving them with a mouthful of hair (Roder-Thiede, 1993). Their feet are highly adapted for movement on rocks. They have weak hind claws and pads on their feet to prevent slipping. (Roder-Thiede, 1993)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    0.500 to 0.800 kg
    1.10 to 1.76 lb
  • Average mass
    0.600 kg
    1.32 lb

Reproduction

Short-tailed chinchillas become sexually mature at an average age of 8 months. Maturity may be reached, though, as early as 5.5 months (Nowak, 1999). Mating occurs biannually. On fur farms, C. lanigera has been observed to come into estrus every four weeks, when the normally tightly closed vagina opens. Since C. lanigera and C. chinchilla are closely related, one may infer that the estrus cycles are similar. Females of C. chinchilla have a 128 day gestation period and 1-2 litters per year. Three litters a year may occasionally occur (Nowak, 1999). The litter size is fairly small and average only 1.45 young per a litter. (Nowak, 1999)

  • Breeding interval
    Short-tailed chinchillas may have from 1 to 3 litters in the breeding season.
  • Breeding season
    Mating occurs biannually.
  • Range number of offspring
    1.000 (low)
  • Average number of offspring
    1.450
  • Average gestation period
    128 days
  • Range weaning age
    42.000 to 56.000 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    5.5 (low) months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    8 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    5.5 (low) months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    8 months

Chinchillas are born fully furred, with teeth and open eyes. They weigh about 35 grams each when born. The neonates immediately creep under the mother's body for warmth while she dries them. Females have one pair of inguinal and two pairs of lateral thoracic mammae (Nowak, 1999). The young are able to eat plant food immediately (Cockrum, 1962), which creates a smooth transition when being weaned from the mother's milk. Weaning occurs at about 6 weeks. Mothers protecting young may act aggressively by standing up and spitting in an intruder's face. The females are able to mate again one week after birth. (Cockrum, 1962; Nowak, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Life span is approximately 8-10 years in the wild. In captivity, however, chinchillas may live between 15-20 years.

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    15-20 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    8 to 10 years

Behavior

These nocturnal animals may emerge at dusk and dawn to bask in the sun. At night the animal uses its vibrissae to navigate in the dark. They may use their whiskers to determine if rock crevices are wide enough for passage. If the vibrissae do not bend, the chinchilla will not get stuck. (International Wildlife Coalition, 1998).

Females are said to dominate males. Although many sources state that chinchillas are monogamous, substantial evidence is lacking (Nowak, 1999). These animals live in colonies ranging from small, with a few individuals, to large, with a hundred or more. ("International Wildlife Coalition Species Page", 1998; Nowak, 1999)

Communication and Perception

The sensory organs are highly developed. The large eyes have vertically slit pupils. The external and middle ear are also large. Short-tailed chinchillas have long vibrissae, 110 mm, on both sides of the upper lip.

Chinchilla chinchilla may make many vocalizations. They give a long warning cry, said to be whistle-like, that alerts the group to danger, they make a low cooing noise when mating, as well as hiss-and-spit agressively. Threats also include growling, chattering the teeth, and urinating. (Morris, 1965)

Food Habits

Chinchillas will eat any vegetation, such as grasses and herbs, within their range. The animal sits up on its hind legs to eat, using its front paws to bring the food to its mouth. Occasionally, chinchillas may eat insects (Morris, 1965). In dry habitats, chinchillas depend on morning dew for water. They also obtain water from the flesh and fruit of cacti (Roder-Thiede, 1993). (Morris, 1965; Roder-Thiede, 1993)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • flowers

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Chinchilla chinchilla has very valuable fur, even more so than C. lanigera. In fact, when its size and weight are considered, the fur is the most valuable in the world. Coats made of wild chinchilla pelts have sold for up to $100,000. It may take up to 400 pelts to make such a coat. The fur is very sensitive to moisture, though, giving it limited durability. Thus, products made from chinchilla fur are luxury items.

As soon as the quality of chinchilla fur was discovered, wild populations were hunted almost to extinction. Commercial hunting in northern Chile began in 1828 and quickly became widespread as trappers realized the immense profits available from chinchilla fur. Furs were mainly exported to the United States, France, England and Germany (Jimenez, 1996). Chinchillas had been hunted in the past by Incans for their fur and meat. Modern trapping techniques and market forces, however, have had a much greater impact on chinchilla populations.

All chinchillas were trapped, but C. chinchilla was especially sought after because of its higher quality fur and larger size. During 1900-09, the number of chinchilla skins from all species officially exported exceeded half a million per year and the number increases if one considers the number of animals whose fur was damaged and those illegally exported. The animals became economically extinct by 1917. The price of the fur continued to rise exponentially, though, increasing the benefits to be gained from trapping them.

Currently, chinchilla fur commonly comes from farm raised animals. Chinchillas are raised in captivity throughout the U.S. They are bred for their fur and also sold as pets. Commericial breeding in the U.S. began with 11 animals brought to California in 1923. However, these animals were probably C. laniger. Wild chinchillas are still trapped in order to improve genetic variation within domestic stocks. ("International Wildlife Coalition Species Page", 1998; Jimenez, 1996)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known negative economic impacts of C. chinchilla.

Conservation Status

The IUCN places the species as critically endangered, noting a decline of at least 80 percent in the past decade because of exploitation and habitat loss (Nowak, 1999). U.S. ESA lists the species as endangered under Chinchilla chinchilla boliviana>>. (Smithsonian Institution, 1993). Chinchilla chinchilla is presumed to be rare, or possiblly extinct, in the wild. While some report that the last animal seen was reported in 1953, the IUCN states that C. chinchilla may still exist in the inaccessable area where the borders of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia meet. There have also been uncomfirmed reports of C. chinchilla in northern Chile in the Lauca National Park as late as 1970. The conditions in Bolivia's Sajama National Park would be ideal for the species' survival but, there is no official record of their presence.

Wild stock is now completely protected. Enforcement proves difficult, though, because of the remote areas in which the animals live. The high value of their fur creates an incentive for trappers to risk breaking the law. In the past, the protection of chinchillas has actually resulted in a great increase in the price of fur. For example, the 1910 treaty between Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina had this effect and trapping for fur continued despite the ban (Jimenez, 1996). Effective protection of C. chinchilla would include the detection of any wild populations and their protection by trained permanent guards (IUCN, 1982).

It is unlikely that C. chinchilla is as threatened by a loss of habitat as C. lanigera. It is important to note, though, that human activities such as mining, firewood extraction, and grazing by goats and cattle, have the potential to further decimate wild populations. Eventually, it may also be threatened by burning and harvesting of the algarrobilla shrub (Balsamocarpon brevifolium) and perhaps from competition with species of the genera Octodon and Abrocoma (Nowak, 1999). Other factors such as small viable population size, predation by foxes, and long term biotic and abiotic changes also influence viability of chinchilla populations.

Attempts at reintroduction have not been sucessful. Further studies on reproduction and patterns affecting population density would be beneficial to these efforts. ("The IUCN Mammal Red Data Book; Part I", 1982; Jimenez, 1996; Nowak, 1999)

Other Comments

Chinchilla chinchilla and C. lanigera were formerly considered one species until some researchers recognized size and color differences among localities. Since the wild populations of C. chinchilla are rare, it may not be possible to further study this taxonomic issue. They are currently considered separate species based on ecological and morphological data (IUCN, 1982). The species may have coexisted in the northern part of the range of C. lanigera and the southern range of C. chinchilla (Jimenez, 1996). Male hybrids from the two species are sterile but females are fertile and may mate with males from either of the species. Although male offspring from a female hybrid are likely to be infertile as well (Morris, 1965).

In the U.S., it may be possible to raise C. chinchilla in captivity. Though most efforts to date have failed. Most of the chinchillas in captivity in South America are C. chinchilla (Morris, 1965).

Contributors

Holly Kopack (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

saltatorial

specialized for leaping or bounding locomotion; jumps or hops.

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

1982. The IUCN Mammal Red Data Book; Part I. Old Woking, Surrey: Unwin Brothers Limited, The Gresham Press.

"Compton's Encyclopedia Online: Chinchilla" (On-line). Accessed November 21, 1999 at http://www.optonline.com/plweb-cgi/fastweb?getdoc+view1+all002+1061+0++chinchilla.

1998. "International Wildlife Coalition Species Page" (On-line). Accessed Novemeber 16, 1999 at http://iwc.org/volunteers/archives/July98/spec_pg0.htm.

"Oakland Zoo: Chinchilla" (On-line). Accessed November 16, 1999 at http://oakzoo.cea.edu/atoz/azchchla.html.

Cockrum, E. 1962. Introduction to Mammalogy. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Grzimek, B. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals: Vol. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.

Haysen, V., A. Van Tienhoven, A. Van Tienhoven. 1993. Asdell's Patterns of Mammalian Reproduction: A Compendium of Species Specific Data. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Jimenez, J. 1996. The Extirpation and Current Status of Wild Chinchillas Chinchilla lanigera and C. brevicaudata. Biological Conservation, 77: 1-6.

Miller, S., J. Rottmann, K. Raedeke, R. Taber. 1983. Endangered Mammals of Chile: Status and Conservation. Biological Conservation, 25: 335-52.

Morris, D. 1965. The Mammals: A Guide to the Living Species. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row Publishers.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World; 6th Edition, Vol. II. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Redford, K., J. Eisenberg. 1989. Mammals of the Neotropics: the Southern Cone, Vol. 2; Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Roder-Thiede, M. 1993. Chinchillas: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual. Hong Kong: Barron's Educational Series.