Scientists have documented the presence of the short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla chinchilla) EDGE mammal number 53, in two new areas of the Atacama region of Chile. The findings were published in the most recent edition of Neotropical Mammalogy, an Argentinian zoological journal.
Short-tailed chinchillas are rodents from the family Chinchillidae, whose historical distribution includes the highlands of Chile, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. As their name suggests they have a much shorter tail than other chinchilla species (C. lanigera), and they are nocturnal, living in colonies of up to 100 individuals. Found in relatively barren areas of the Andes Mountains at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 m, they shelter in crevices and holes among the rocks. Their population number is unknown but thought to be very low.
Currently short-tailed chinchillas are restricted to two towns in Chile, but in Argentina they have a much larger range, although scientists have never been able to collect data from Argentinian populations. Previous short-tailed chinchilla records from the Atacama region in the north of Chile were scarce and poorly documented.
Atacama has three national parks: Sugar Loaf, Llanos de Challe and Nevado Tres Cruces. The management plan of the latter indicates the existence of the short-tailed chinchilla but offers no confirmed records.
As part of a development plan for research of the biodiversity of protected areas of the Atacama Region, administered by the National Forestry Corporation of Chile (CONAF), the researchers began a detailed survey of flora and fauna in Nevado Tres Cruces in 2011.
One of the scientists placed motion-sensitive cameras in a ravine in a ‘Priority Site’, and amazingly this picked up photos of a new short-tailed chinchilla colony. A second group was detected farther north in Santa Rosa lagoon, where traces of chinchilla hair had previously been found. The findings will be used to help develop long-term conservation programs in Chile.
The evidence is an amazing find, but there are still doubts about the range of short-tailed chinchillas across all of the relevant countries. In 2008, their status was officially updated by the IUCN to ‘Critically Endangered’ (rather than locally Extinct in certain countries) because of evidence that wild populations live in Bolivia and Peru. There is no doubt that the species is in need of urgent conservation attention because the populations that do exist are scarce, small and isolated.
EDGE is currently supporting a fellow (Maria Copa Alvaro) who is attempting to find Bolivian populations of short-tailed chinchillas. As well as physical data collection, she is interviewing residents of the Bolivian highlands about sightings of the species and where they think the chinchillas may still exist.