Chinchilla Francois actually sitting still for two seconds for this picture. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This South American rodent is probably known more as a pet today than as the wild animals of the Andes. But they do still exist in the wild. There numbers are so low however, that both the long and short-tailed chinchilla are listed as critically endangered, due to commercial hunting and exportation of their fur. There are now breeding facilities that raise chinchillas both for fur and for pets.

So why chinchilla fur? Well, it is one of the softest things I have personally ever touched. They have about 60 hairs per hair follicle! We have 1. They have 60. And since the square inch of fur right on their neck is the softest, luxury coats are made using only that square inch. It can take anywhere from 100-400 chinchillas to make one chinchilla fur coat. They are very expensive and not really practical. Since chinchillas are from the Andes, their habitat is actually a very cold desert. Given that their habitat is really dry, their fur does not hold up well in rain, so the fur coats are not even functional as a form of protection.

At any rate, chinchillas have this really dense, soft fur to keep them warm in really cold temperatures at high elevations and to keep out parasites. As I just mentioned, their soft fur doesn’t do well in water, so to bathe, they use dust! It seems so counter intuitive, but they take dust baths to get clean because the dust absorbs the oils on their fur. This is why despite their fluffy softness, it is not a good idea to kiss a chinchilla, unless you want a mouth full of dust (Learned the hard way). In their natural habitat, this dust is made of volcanic ash.

Chinchillas live in groups of 50-100 animals.  But don’t let the cute face fool you; these animals can be very aggressive towards one another and anything that crosses them. Especially a mother protecting her young. She will stand on her hind legs and spit directly in the face of an enemy. It’s easy to understand why mom is so protective-she worked hard for her young. Considering how big the animals are, they have a relatively very long gestation period-about 111 days! But it pays off, the babies are born fully furred and with their eyes open. And even though they suckle for about six weeks, they can eat plant food immediately!


Francois, not wanting to sit still anymore, desides he wants to come sniff my camera. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

Special thanks to chinchilla wrangler, Anneliese, for helping me get these shots.