The Chinchilla is a genus of South American rodents found from southern Peru and Bolivia to southern Chile. Chinchillas live at altitudes of from 3,000 to 15,000 feet (1,000 to 4,000 meters). They grow a remarkably soft dense fur of long, silky hair. The fur, which is said to have more hairs per square inch than that of any other animal, is colored bluish, pearl, or brownish gray, with light blackish-tinged marks. The underparts are yellowish white. Chinchillas have bushy tails marked with brown or black and long white or black vibrissae ("mustaches"). The head is broad, with large eyes and ears. Chinchillas range from 9 to 15 inches (23 to 38 cm) long, plus a tail of 3 to 10 inches (7.5 to 25 cm), and weigh from 1 to 2 pounds (450 to 900 grams). The females are larger than the males.
Chinchillas are gregarious; colonies of up to 100 individuals used to be frequent, but years of uncontrolled hunting (by natives for meat and by traders for skins) left the animals on the verge of extinction. They are nocturnal animals and strictly vegetarian, eating the plants that grow on the barren rocks of the Andean highlands, especially the iro, or spiny grass (Festucca). Water is obtained from dew that collects on plants.
Chinchillas take a single mate for life. The female is the active partner during courtship. Litters of 1 to 6 are born after a gestation period of 112 days; from 1 to 3 litters are bom in a year. In captivity the estrous cycle lasts 24 days, with two days of estrus, or heat. The young nurse for 45 days, leave the parents at 10 weeks of age, and become sexually mature at 5 to 8 months. The life-span in the wild is about 10 years; in captivity, up to 20 years.
Chinchilla pelts are among the highest-priced in the international fur market. During the period of heaviest demand, some 200,000 skins were exported from South America in a single year. Fur coats of wild chinchilla have been sold for as high as $100,000. Practically extinct in Peru and nearly exterminated in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, chinchillas are now protected by law in those countries. The establishment of fur farms has also helped save them from complete extinction. The first farm was established in 1923 near San Antonio de los Cobres, Argentina, with a colony of 36 animals. This pioneer enterprise was not successful. In 1924 a few animals were taken from Chile to Inglewood, California. This new farm soon became the largest chinchilla ranch in the world and was the source of the animals used to establish several other farms in North America and Europe. The raising of chinchillas in captivity has lowered the price of the skin, but it still remains the most expensive pelt in the fur trade, considering its size and weight.
There are two species of chinchilla and a few local races. Chinchilla brevicaudata is the largest in total length. It once ranged from the high Andes of Peru to northwestern Argentina, but it is now extinct in the northern-most part of its range. Chinchilla lanigera is smaller in total length, but in contrast to C. brevicaudata, its tail is longer than the combined length of the head and body. It is found in northern Chile to about 30° south latitude. The chinchillas and the viscachas (Lagidium and Lagostomus) constitute the family Chinchillidae.