The chinchilla is named after the Chincha people who lived in Peru in the Andes.
Chinchillas are rodents that are native to the Andes mountains in South America at high elevations of 9,800 to 16,400 feet. They are now only found in Chile, but historically were also found in Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina.
There are 2 species of chinchilla, Chinchilla chinchilla (short-tailed chinchilla) and Chinchilla lanigera (long-tailed chinchilla). Both are listed as endangered in the wild due to being hunted for their coats. It is illegal to hunt chinchillas, but they are still being poached.
Domestic chinchillas that are kept as pets descended from Chinchilla lanigera. They were brought to the United States by a mining engineer named Mathias F. Chapman in the 1920s. He got permission from the Chilean government to bring 11 chinchillas and it is believed that most domestic chinchillas today in the U.S. are descendents of these. Domestic chinchillas are larger than wild ones.
Chinchilla have the densest fur of all mammals that live on land. Each follicle grows on average 60 hairs (human hair follicles average 2-3 hairs). Sea otters have an even denser coat.
Chinchillas need their thick fur to keep them warm high in the mountains. They cannot tolerate temperatures above 80 Fahrenheit as they cannot pant or sweat and are easily overheated.
They do not bathe in water and should not get wet. Instead, they clean their fur by taking dust baths a few times a week.
Chinchillas are very social and in the wild, chinchillas live in herds from 14 to 100. Living in herds also helps protect them from predators. Predators include owls, cougars, foxes, skunks, and snakes. To defend themselves, they might spray urine or release a patch of fur if bitten.
They are nocturnal (active at night) and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and sleep during the day.
In the wild, chinchillas live in burrows or crevices in rocks. They are omnivores and eat plants, fruits, seeds, insects, and eggs. As pets, they mainly eat chinchilla-specific pellets, unlimited grass hay, and fresh green lettuce.
Chinchillas can live 15-22 years. Their body can be 9-15 inches long plus a tail of 3-6 inches. They weigh 1.1 to 1.8 pounds with females being 30 percent larger than males.
They are very active and playful and can jump up to 6 feet. As pets, they require lots of space. They do not make good pets for young children as they are fragile and sensitive, preferring calm and quiet environments.