How Good Is a Chinchilla’s Eyesight?

Chinchillas clearly have great hearing, but what about their vision? How well, how far can they see, and can chinchillas see in color?

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Chinchillas clearly have great hearing, but what about their vision? How well, how far can they see, and can chinchillas see in color?

How good is a chinchilla’s eyesight? They have reasonable vision, but not as good as ours. Chinchillas can see in color as other rodents can, as proven by recent studies. Their night vision is good. But they have blurry vision, so can’t see in detail. They rely more on their fantastic senses of hearing and smell instead.

But how well can chinchillas see at night? What colors do they see: what about infrared and ultraviolet? The post below answers these questions, and more.

How Well Can Chinchillas See?

Can chinchillas see well? Their vision is blurry, and not as good as ours.

While chinchillas can see in color, they likely can’t see as many colors as we can. While they can see what’s going on around them, they can’t see detail like we can. And even though they can spot predators when they get close, they can’t see into the distance like we can.

Chinchillas can get away with having relatively poor vision because they have such good hearing. They have perhaps the best hearing of any rodent, hence why their ears are so large. As such, they typically hear a predator and react to its approach before they would see it anyway. This is also why chinchillas are so communicative, e.g. they make alarm calls.

The Chinchilla Eye: Anatomy

The anatomy of a chinchilla’s eye is much like ours, but is subtly different in how and how well it works. These fundamental biological differences are why their vision isn’t as good as ours.

The first thing you need to know is that the chinchilla’s eye is structured in much the same way as ours is. Here’s a list of everything in a chinchilla’s eye and what it does; you’ll already be familiar with most of these things from biology class.

  1. The pupil. The pupil is a hole in the center of the iris. It can be opened and closed using muscles, allowing more or less light to hit the retina depending on the level of light.
  2. The cornea. The cornea is a thick layer that sits above the pupil and lens. It protects them from scratches, and its rounded shape widens the field of vision.
  3. The lens. The lens is like a lens in a pair of spectacles. It focuses light towards the back of the eye, where the retina interprets it.
  4. The retina. The retina is the lining at the back of the eye. It receives light and converts it into nerve signals to be sent to the brain.
  5. The optic nerve. This carries the nerve signals from the retina to the brain. In the brain, the signals are interpreted as what the chinchilla sees.

One thing that chinchillas lack is something called a ‘fovea’. This is a part of the eye’s anatomy that’s only found in certain animals, including people.

It’s a tiny pit located at the back of the eye in the retina, and is packed with cones. Its purpose is to pick out detail. The reason why you can see tiny things in detail, like these words on your screen, is that the fovea focuses on them. Animals without one can’t see small details like these because they don’t have one; chinchillas don’t have one either. This means that a chinchilla’s vision will be blurrier than ours.

A good way of understanding what this means is to think about your whole range of vision. The exact point that your eyes focus (i.e. on these words) will be in great detail. But an inch to the side is blurrier; further out is blurrier still. That’s what vision is like in animals that don’t have a fovea.

Are Chinchillas Blind?

chinchilla eyesight

Chinchillas aren’t blind, but their eyesight isn’t as good as ours.

Certain rodents are blind; typically ones that live underground like moles. While chinchillas do spend much of their time in abandoned burrows and in rock crevices, they do need to spend lots of time on the surface.

That’s not to say that chinchillas can’t go blind. In old age or through injury, it’s possible for a chinchilla to lose its sight. There are also health conditions like eye infections or conjunctivitis that can make chinchillas blind.

How Far Can Chinchillas See?

Unfortunately, there are no studies that look specifically at how far away chinchillas can see.

What’s likely is that chinchillas have the same depth of vision as a short-sighted person. They can see to the other side of a room, but they can’t make out anything but blurry detail. Past that point, and all they see is a blur of light and color. This means you can see your chinchilla from further away than it can see you.

That being said, your pet can hear and smell you from a distance (that’s nothing personal—they just have a good sense of smell, too). So while you would rely on seeing your chinchilla from afar, it would rely on smelling or hearing you.

Can Chinchillas See in Color?

It’s long been popular belief that chinchillas can only see in black and white; in other words, they’re color blind. But this isn’t true.

Recent research published in Veterinary Ophthalmology has looked specifically at this issue. It might seem odd that scientists are so concerned with how well chinchillas can see, but they have been lab animals for longer than they’ve been pets. As such, we know a lot about them.

To understand why people thought chinchillas were color blind, and why they actually aren’t, you first have to understand how color vision works.

Rods & Cones

Color vision works because the retina contains two specialized kinds of cells (among others): rods and cones. You’ve likely already heard this term before when studying the human eye, and they’re found in chinchilla eyes too. Rods excel in low light vision, so are good at sensing even tiny amounts of light, for seeing at night. Cones are active at higher levels of light, but can distinguish colors.

Chinchillas were long thought to have only rods in their retinas. This would mean that they lack the anatomy needed to see color. This idea came from a pioneering paper published way back in 1949, and it has been assumed since than that these findings must have been correct. But they aren’t.

This idea was allowed to continue for so long partly because people assume the chinchilla is a fully nocturnal animal, but that’s not true. They sleep slightly more during the day, but have periods of activity both in the day and at night. This more recent paper spotted this problem in the literature and addressed it using modern electroretinography. They found that chinchillas do have cells that respond specifically to color.

Are Chinchillas Color Blind?

chinchilla eyesight

Chinchillas are ‘color blind’, although that may not mean what you think it means!

Color blindness doesn’t necessarily mean seeing only in black and white.* Rather, it means that you don’t see color in the exact same way as other people. So, two colors that look different to other people may look the same to a color blind person, e.g. red and green. At the same time, some other colors can stand out more. True color blindness does exist (i.e. seeing well but only in grayscale) but only one or two species of the millions known have this form of vision.

Color blindness occurs because the cone cells respond differently to normal, or because the animal/person doesn’t have as many. This is why other animals don’t see color in the same way that we do: they may see fewer colors, or they may see colors that no person can see (like how bees can see ultraviolet).

So, what colors can chinchillas see? Unfortunately, the study above didn’t examine the chinchillas’ eyes in enough depth to figure out exactly which colors they likely see, although they did make some guesses. They hypothesize that they may have similar color vision to dogs, which can see red well, but not green/yellow. Or, they may have vision similar to that of other rodents, which is the reverse (yellow and green are easily distinguished but red is not). They also think that chinchillas can’t see blue very well, although this isn’t certain either.

*Author’s note: People saying this is a pet peeve of mine because I’m red-green color blind myself!

Can Chinchillas See Infrared/Can Chinchillas See Ultraviolet?

Another fault of the study above is that it didn’t check whether chinchillas can see colors we can’t, like infrared and ultraviolet.

Infrared and ultraviolet aren’t another kind of light, or some strange type of radiation. They’re just regular light at different wavelengths. The only difference between colors like orange and blue is how much energy the light has (a tighter wavelength = more energy). Infrared is light at a wavelength that has too much energy/too tight a wavelength for our eyes to see, while infrared wavelengths are too wide apart. But other animals’ eyes can sense colors that ours can’t.

What we do know is that many rodents can see colors we can’t. Rats, for example, can see ultraviolet light. It’s possible to inject a lab rat’s eyes with something that makes them see infrared, but they don’t naturally. Many other rodents like mice can also see ultraviolet, so it’s possible that chinchillas can too. But that’s a guess rather than a fact.

Can Chinchillas See in the Dark?

One way in which a chinchilla’s vision excels is that they can see well in the dark.

As stated above, chinchillas aren’t fully nocturnal. But they do spend lots of time running around on the surface at night. They play, feed and generally run about as if they can see perfectly—even if you’d need night-vision goggles to see where you’re going. That’s because they can see well even in low light conditions.

There are two key reasons for this. The first is that they have lots and lots of rod cells. Even though it has been proven they have cone cells, so can see in color, they do still have more rods than we do; this means their night vision is better than ours. Furthermore, to enable them to see in the dark, chinchillas’ pupils open wide. This lets more light into the eye.

Can Chinchillas See in Bright Light?

While chinchillas do have good night vision, they also have adaptations that let them see well in bright light.

This is necessary because of where chinchillas live, not just when they’re active. Chinchillas live in the Andes Mountains, in a place where there’s no tree cover and there aren’t many plants. So, if it’s a bright day, they don’t have many places to find shade when they’re on the surface.

To adapt, chinchillas can fully close their pupils. You’ll already know that when you’re somewhere bright, your pupil gets smaller and smaller. Chinchillas have taken this one step further and can completely shut their pupils, which is how they can sleep with their eyes open. So, when it’s bright, they can block out most of the light.

Something else that helps is that their pupils are slit-shaped, not round. This means that even when they narrow their pupils, they still have a wide range of vision. Slit pupils are also good for judging distance, which is why many predators have them.

Chinchilla Lighting Requirements

Because of its poor vision, you may think that you need to light a chinchilla’s cage brightly. There’s no reason to do that.

Your chinchilla’s cage should be kept somewhere that isn’t in direct sunlight. That’s because the warmth of the light can make a chinchilla overheat. While ideally your chinchilla should have natural light, many owners keep their pets in the basement, and the chinchillas don’t seem to mind. What’s far more important is that the temperature and humidity conditions are right.

Wherever you keep your chinchilla, it should have a light cycle. It should be light in the day and dark during the night. This will let your pet display its innate behaviors like sleeping more during the day.

Do Chinchillas Need Lights on at Night?

Chinchillas don’t need nightlights. They don’t get scared of the dark.

If anything, a nightlight will confuse your pet. That’s because it has a daytime-nighttime cycle, and leaving a bright light on for it would trick its brain into thinking it’s daytime. It’s the same reason why you shouldn’t stare at your phone when you’re trying to get to sleep; the light makes your brain think the sun is shining, so it doesn’t start producing go-to-sleep hormones.

If you notice that your chinchilla’s behavior changes at night, don’t worry. Unless your pet displays any signs of ill health, it’s of no concern.

Chinchilla Vision FAQs

With large topics like these, there are always questions that don’t seem to fit in anywhere else. These are a few that we wanted to cover.

1) How Do You Know If a Chinchilla Is Blind?

You can easily tell when a chinchilla is blind because it’s clumsy. It will walk around bumping into things. It will also be far less confident jumping from place to place as it can’t see where it’s going.

Certain conditions that cause blindness are also visible. Cataracts, for example, are obvious because they make the eye look cloudy. If you think your chinchilla has gone blind, take it to the vet to find out what’s wrong.

2) Can Chinchillas See Ghosts/Can Chinchillas See Spirits?

chinchilla eyesight

This is a question that, surprisingly, we see a lot. So you’re not the first person to have thought this!

What makes this seem possible is that chinchillas react to things we can’t see or hear. And to let you know, they’ll bark loudly to warn you. But what’s more likely than ghosts is that chinchillas can use their extraordinary sense of hearing to hear things we can’t. That could be a car driving by outside, a door slamming across the road, or a noise that you thought was quiet but that sounded loud to your pet.

If your chinchilla won’t stop barking, there’s probably a repetitive noise it can hear that you can’t. Try moving your pet to another room to see if it calms down.

Of course, the problem could be ghosts or poltergeists. But if that’s the case, then it’s beyond the capabilities of this site to help. For that you’ll need an exorcist.

3) Why Does My Chinchilla Stare at Me?

If your chinchilla stands still and stares at you, it’s probably not trying to intimidate you! There are a few reasons why it might do that:

  1. It can’t see you properly; all it can see is a blur. It may be trying to figure out what you’re doing.
  2. It heard something in another room. When chinchillas are listening, they stop doing what they’re doing to listen. It’s not thinking about what it sees, but what it hears.
  3. Your chinchilla is asleep. Chins sleep with their eyes open. But because their pupils are completely closed, all light is blocked out. It’s not really staring at you.
  4. No reason. Do you ever stop what you’re doing and stare into the distance for no real reason? Pets can do the same.

If your chinchilla does nothing but stare at you—it doesn’t move, it doesn’t eat—then your pet has a serious medical issue of some kind. You should take it to the vet.

Below, you can find our chinchilla quiz, new posts for further reading, and a signup for our Chinchilla Newsletter!

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New owner, don't know where to start? Or do you need a handy chinchilla reference guide? Check out our Chinchilla Care 101 eBook, or get what you need from our online store!