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Chinchillas are small, soft, nocturnal rodents that many people keep as pets, and just as many keep to make coats. Here are 11 facts about the Andes’ own “Little Chinchas.”
- Chinchillas are more or less volcanic mice
Chinchillas are rodents native to the Andes mountains. They are specially adapted to live among the mountains and volcanos, basically making them one step short of a pokemon.
- A group is called a “herd”
It’s a fun thought to imagine a Chilean farmer, thumbs in his belt, looking up the hill at his very own herd of chinchillas.
- They spray urine for defense
In the wild, chinchillas are not exactly apex predators. So, to ward off predators, they use techniques like fur loss and spraying their attacker with urine. I have to say that that would certainly get rid of my appetite.
- Their teeth can overgrow
Chinchillas have a bit of a problem in captivity, stemming from two things. First, they are rodents, and so their teeth are constantly growing. Second, chinchillas are native to a very harsh area full of tough vegetation. As a result, if the chinchilla is not given something to chew on to wear down its teeth, its teeth can grow so long as to prevent the chinchilla from eating.
- They can’t sweat
High in the Andes, temperatures at night (when chinchillas are most active) are very cold, with the average being around 23 degrees Fahrenheit. As such, cooling down is not really the chinchilla’s main environmental problem, resulting in a very furry animal that simply cannot sweat.
- Their fur can get moldy
Chinchillas have some seriously dense fur. Each hair follicle puts out as many as 60 hairs, leading to a coat that, should it get wet, has no real way to dry itself. If the chinchilla gets wet and isn’t dried somehow, fungi will grow in the chinchilla’s coat.
- They take baths in dust
Since the coat is so dense and can’t get wet, chinchillas need some other way to clean themselves. So, like the elephants and wildebeest of Africa, it rolls in dust – pumice ash, produced by volcanos. This cleans their hair and can even take care of biting insects.
- They have a problem with convulsions
Pet chinchillas are seriously inbred. As such, their health can sometimes be somewhat delicate. Occasionally, a chinchilla will be afflicted with convulsions, owing to a host of possible reasons, such as a circulatory problem. A strong reaction to stress is also a problem, since chinchillas are naturally high-strung.
- They are critically endangered
This is where this gets sad. In the 1500s, the Spanish conquerors of the Andes region said to themselves, man this little thing is really soft. Soon they marched into the mountains to capture as many as possible to kill and breed for their fur. This hunting for fur continued until the 1920s, when the chinchillas, now reduced to only two species and extinct in a few countries, were classified as critically endangered. They are now illegal to hunt in the wild.
- There are chinchilla poachers
However, as with the white rhino, some jerk is still going to keep killing them some animals for money, no matter how many of those animals are left. Poaching (along with habitat destruction) continues to be a problem for the wild chinchillas.
- Nearly every chinchilla in the US is a descendent of 11
Mathias Chapman was a mining engineer in Chile in 1918 when he first encountered a chinchilla. Accounts of his motivation vary, but he soon started petitioning the Chilean government to allow him to capture some (since by this point, hunting them and commercializing them was wildly illegal). After much persistence, the Chilean government agreed to let Chapman take some to America. The populations at that point were so sparse that it took three years to catch 11 chinchillas, which Chapman then (very carefully and slowly) brought to America and opened a chinchilla ranch to raise them for fur.