Long-tailed Chinchilla
(Chinchilla lanigera)
Chinchillas are best known for their plush, dense silky fur which has been highly prized by humans since the time of the ancient Incas. Some long-tailed chinchillas were brought into captivity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and today millions of their descendents are bred commercially throughout the world. However, wild populations have been decimated by hunting and subsequent trade in their pelts. Between 1895 and 1921 over three million chinchilla pelts including a small number of live animals were exported from Chile. Some authors report that more than 21 million chinchillas were actually killed between 1840 and 1916. The species was believed extinct until the rediscovery of a population in central Chile in the 1975. Although now protected by law the wild population continues to decline due to habitat destruction and degradation.
Urgent Conservation Actions
The education of local communities, increasing the size of the protected area and habitat restoration are conservation imperatives.
The mountains of northern Chile
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Rodentia
Family: Chinchillidae
Chinchillids are endemic South American rodents (Rodentia, Hystricognathi, Chinchillidae) that occur along the Andes. They include chinchillas (Chinchilla), mountain viscachas (Lagidium), and pampas viscachas (Lagostomus). Fossils belonging to this family are known from as long ago as the early Oligocene (38 million years ago). The Chinchillidae are most closely related to the geographically distinct Dinomyidae (pacaranas), a monospecific family from northern South America.

In the past only a single chinchilla species was recognized, but most taxonomists agree that differences in colour, size and tail length between different populations indicate that there are two species: Chinchilla chinchilla and C. lanigera. Recent molecular research has provided further evidence for this. The range of the two chinchilla species may have overlapped in the past, and some interbreeding may have occurred. Male hybrids from the two species are sterile, but females are fertile and may mate with males from either of the species. There are large numbers of chinchillas in captivity today – they are bred for both the fur trade and the pet trade. These chinchillas are distinct from both species and are likely to be a cross between the two.
Head-body length: 225-380 mm
Weight: 500 - 800 g
Chinchillas are about the size of a small rabbit. They have a broad head, large mouse-like ears and large black eyes. The body is small with a long bushy tail measuring up to one third of the body length. The characteristic that they are best known for is their plush fur. Whereas humans have one hair from each follicle, a chinchilla has more than 50 hairs from a single follicle. Their silky fur is extremely dense and soft. It is bluish, pearl or brownish grey in colouration above and yellowish white below. Chinchillas have strong hind legs, enabling them to run and jump with ease. They are sexually dimorphic, with adult females being larger than males.

As its common name suggests, the long-tailed chinchilla has a longer tail than its relative the short-tailed chinchilla. It is also smaller, with a more slender body and large ears.
Chinchillas are most active at dawn and dusk and during the night, although they have occasionally been observed outside of their holes on sunny days. Their diet consists of any available vegetation. Chinchillas are social animals, mostly living in colonies in burrows or tunnels created within and around the cardon plant (Puya berteroniana) found on equatorial slopes. Colonies were previously reported to contain up to 100 individuals although are likely to be much smaller today.

The lifespan is probably about 10 years in the wild, although some captive individuals have lived for more than 20 years. Sexual maturity in both sexes occurs on average at 8 months, but may occur as early as 5.5 months. The gestation period lasts 111 days which is relatively long for such a small mammal. Females can have up to two litters per year. Litters can range from 1-6 pups, but around two is the average. These young are born with eyes open and fully furred.
Occurs in barren, arid areas of the Andes at elevations of 3,000 – 5,000 m. Typical habitat is rocky or sandy with a sparse cover of thorn shrubs, few herbs and forbs, scattered cacti, and patches of succulent bromeliads toward the coast. Individuals shelter in holes and crevices among the rocks.
Although once widespread along the central Andes and adjacent mountains, the long-tailed chinchilla is now restricted to a few localities in the mountains of northern Chile.
Population Estimate
Unknown. This species was once widespread, but in 1996 only 42 discrete colonies could be found in the wild.
Population Trend
Decreasing. The population has declined by an estimated 90% over the past 3 generations (15 years).
Classified as Critically Endangered (CR A2ac) on the 2009 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Since the time of the ancient Incas chinchilla fur has been highly prized by humans. Historically, the main threat to this species was overhunting for its pelt. Between 1895 and 1921 over three million chinchilla pelts including a small number of live animals were exported from Chile. Some authors report that more than 21 million chinchillas were actually killed between 1840 and 1916. Although these animals subsequently became protected, populations have continued to decline due to habitat destruction and degradation from grazing cattle and goats, firewood extraction and mining. It has been suggested that the current population may now be too small to be viable.
Conservation Underway
This species has been included in CITES Appendix I since 1977. National legislation to protect the species has been in place since 1929. However, this was not efficiently enforced until the establishment of the Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas in Auco, Chile in 1983. About 5,000 individuals are located on private unprotected land.
Conservation Proposed
Several key conservation actions have been identified. These include education and awareness programmes for local people, alternative forms of income generation, possible eradication of goats from the landscape, increasing the area of land under protection, and restoration of degraded habitat.
Associated EDGE Community members

Amy is director of Save the Wild Chinchillas Inc

Jaime is a Chilean native with broad interests in conservation ecology and ecological studies of Chilean vertebrates

Zoo population

There is a long-tailed chinchilla resident at ZSL London Zoo

Deane, A. and Riger, P. 2005. Wild chinchilla conservation and education. Animal Keepers’ Forum 32(3): 116-121.

D'elia, G. & Teta, P. 2008. Chinchilla lanigera. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 15 November 2010.

Jiménez, J. E. 1996. The extirpation and current status of wild chinchillas Chinchilla lanigera and C. brevicaudata. Biological Conservation 77:1-6.

Lammers, A. R., Dziech, H. A. & German, R. Z. 2001. Ontogeny of Sexual Dimorphism in Chinchilla Lanigera (Rodentia: Chinchillidae). Journal of Mammalogy, 82(1):179–189.

Spotorno, A. E. Et al. 2004. Molecular Divergence and Phylogenetic Relationships of Chinchillids (Rodentia: Chinchillidae). Journal of Mammalogy, 85(3):000–000.

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