Chinchillas and their Wild Habitat

Ever wondered where your adorable chinchilla comes from? Fine, you may have gotten it from a pet store, but do you know where it really comes from?

Natural chinchilla habitat is the cool and arid environment of the Andes Mountains in South America (that runs across Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina). Rock crevices and underground tunnels are typical homes for these furry creatures. Since the terrain is what biologists call a “semi-desert biosphere”, cacti and various succulents cover the area. The Puya berteroniana, a kind of bromeliad, and the cardon plant are also favorite homes for chinchillas to burrow into.

Because of the mountainous terrain, chinchillas have evolved into agile jumpers, leaping heights up to 6 feet. Their natural habitat is cold, dry, and sandy and it has also influenced the development of their fur, famous for being thick, soft, and plush (about 60 strands of hair are found in each follicle!). Their dense fur not only protects them from extreme temperatures, but is also coated with the natural oil called ‘lanolin’ which makes them impenetrable to pests and parasites. Though they are unable to sweat, blood surges into their large ears in high temperatures, helping them cool down.

With such a semi-arid climate, chinchillas interestingly clean themselves with dust baths, rolling in fine volcanic ash that penetrates their thick coat.

Other interesting survival aspects developed by the chinchilla because of its quasi-harsh environment include spraying urine and releasing fur as defense mechanisms when attacked by possible predators. Mostly birds of prey, canines, and snakes prove to be dangerous to these furry creatures. Also scientifically described as “crepuscular”, chinchillas are nocturnal and most active either during dawn and dusk; successfully evading much of their predators during those times. At the turn of the century, humans have unfortunately been added to their roster of predators. Hunted for their plush fur, chinchillas in the wild have greatly declined in number causing them to be included in the list of endangered species. Human expansion through mining and farming continues to threaten them. Biologists, however, have tried to breed specimens in captivity producing more chinchillas for preservation, fur farming, and to be enjoyed by pet owners around the world.

Chinchilla are generally herbivores, their diet is made up of fruits, seeds, plants, roots, bulbs, and tiny insects. Take note that those in captivity or domestically-bred are different because they have been raised to be used to a diet primarily based on hay.

In the wild, chinchillas gather in social groups termed as ‘herds.’ These colonies can expand to more than 15 members, recognizing each other through scent and watching out for each other in times of potential danger. Socializing includes grooming, cleaning, and mating. Without any particular season to mate, chinchillas can breed any time of the year, producing mostly two kits at a time.

For a more fun and interesting experience in keeping a chinchilla as a pet, it’s best that owners not only understand the natural chinchilla habitat of their pet but to try to replicate the environment in its home. For example, since the chinchilla is nocturnal, it’s better to avoid placing the cage in a noisy and bright place. Its cage should have enough space, a running wheel, ramps, ledges, and shelves to run around in, jump on, or cling on to since it’s naturally active. Also, understanding that it’s a social species might make you consider keeping more than just one.

Understanding all these makes chinchilla care easy and fun for both the pet and the owner.