Chinchillas are small mammals native to only a small area of South America, although they are also widely kept as pets. They have a unique appearance as they have a short body with short legs, a large head, hairless ears, and a bushy tail. They also have incredibly thick fur. However, given their small stature, one question that is often asked about them is, “are chinchillas rodents?”
In this article, we’ll learn all about chinchillas, including whether they fit into the rodent category, where they come from, and what makes them unique. We’ll also learn about how close they came to extinction and what makes them such good pets. So, join us as we discover whether chinchillas really are rodents!
Chinchillas are small but unique mammals. They are native to only a small area across the Andes Mountains in South America, mostly only in Chile. They prefer to live in burrows or in small crevices underneath rocks. Despite this, they are extremely agile and are talented climbers, and can jump around six feet. Chinchillas typically reach lengths of up to 19 inches, depending on the species, with females being slightly larger than males.
However, one of their most notable features is their incredibly thick, dense fur. Chinchillas have the thickest fur of all land mammals, with only sea otters having a more dense coat. Their fur is incredibly soft and fluffy because they have around 80 ultra-fine hairs per hair follicle. Their thick coat also means that they are well adapted to cold climates. They clean their fur by taking dust baths. Chinchillas in the wild are typically a yellowish-gray color.
Chinchillas are largely nocturnal, although they have a tendency to lean towards crepuscular activity (being most active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk). They are very social animals and live in large groups. These groups are known as colonies and are often led by a matriarch. Litters consist of between one and six offspring. Chinchillas have the ability to breed all year round, although usually only two litters per year are born. Predators of chinchillas include eagles, hawks, snakes, and skunks.
Are Chinchillas Rodents?
Chinchillas are rodents. They share all the characteristics that are used to define a rodent. They are classified in the same order, and they share the same typical body shape. Chinchillas are herbivorous, just like the majority of rodents, and they have the same teeth which are unique to all rodents.
All rodents are members of the Rodentia order and are characterized by a set of continually growing incisor teeth. As chinchillas share these characteristics, they fit right into this category. Although most people think of rodents as being mainly rats, mice, and squirrels, the Rodentia order is the largest order of mammals with around 2,000 different species. In fact, around 40% of all mammals are rodents – including beavers, porcupines, and prairie dogs.
Rodents – including chinchillas – have large and powerful incisors which never stop growing. As they never stop growing, these animals have to gnaw all the time. This is to prevent their teeth from becoming too long for their mouths. Their incisors are also self-sharpening so that they never become blunt or ineffective. This unique feature occurs because of what their teeth are made from. The front of their teeth is coated in tough enamel, while the rear is covered with dentin. Dentin is softer than enamel, so it wears down quicker. This leaves a super sharp chisel-shaped edge that can cut through even the toughest materials. Most rodents are herbivores and eat a range of fruit, nuts, seeds, and grains, although some are omnivores. In the wild, chinchillas often add to their diet a range of small insects.
Chinchillas – like all rodents – also lack canine teeth. Canine teeth are the sharp and pointy ones which are typically called fangs. The canines are usually located between the incisors and the premolars. Instead of having these teeth, chinchillas have a noticeable gap where they should be.
There are only two species of chinchillas in the world today – the long-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera) and the short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla chinchilla). Sadly, they are both endangered. The chinchilla population has declined drastically due to them being hunted for the fur industry. As mentioned, chinchillas only live in the wild in a very small range. Their range initially extended through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. However, it is now far smaller, and they are now extinct in some regions.
Short-tailed chinchillas were almost extinct in Chile during the 1890s, and the first ban on hunting them was brought in in 1910. However, it wasn’t until 1929 that chinchillas actually became protected in law against hunting. Despite this, the numbers didn’t really improve, and both short-tailed and long-tailed chinchillas were critically endangered by 2008. Thankfully, there has been some slight recovery of both populations, and they are now both endangered rather than critical.
Chinchillas as Pets
Chinchillas are now popular pets worldwide due to their curious and lively nature. Domesticated chinchillas are descended from the long-tailed chinchilla due to the almost-extinction of the short-tailed species. Although wild chinchillas are a yellowish-gray color, domesticated chinchillas can be beige, black, white, violet, or bluish-gray due to selective breeding.
As pets, chinchillas are incredibly cute and smart. They can be very affectionate and often like to be held and petted. They are also often extremely entertaining to watch due to their agile and active nature. However, chinchillas cannot sweat, and due to their thick fur, they can easily overheat.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © ATTILA Barsan/Shutterstock.com
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