How Good Is a Chinchilla’s Hearing?

Chinchillas have great big ears, so surely have a good sense of hearing, too… Right?

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Chinchillas have great big ears, so surely have a good sense of hearing, too… Right?

How good is a chinchilla’s hearing? The chinchilla hearing range is similar to ours, between 50 Hz and 33 kHz. Chinchillas have particularly sensitive hearing at the higher pitched end of the range. Many of the squeaks they make are too high pitched for us to hear. Owners frequently report their chinchilla hearing things that they can’t.

This is why you have to keep chinchillas somewhere calm and quiet. And because loud noises cause stress, or even noise induced hearing loss, the guide below is one you can’t afford to miss.

How Well Can Chinchillas Hear?

chinchilla earsChinchillas have highly sensitive hearing, which is reflected in the large size of their ears! They can hear almost everything that you can hear, plus things that are higher pitched. They can also pick up on quieter sounds than we can, which is why chinchillas frequently bark even when you didn’t hear anything that could have disturbed them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the chinchilla’s hearing has been the subject of many scientific studies. That’s because scientists think that the chinchilla’s hearing systems (all the internal structures of the ear) are similar to ours, only better. They’re therefore used as a model for studying hearing loss.

A paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America took an in-depth look at the chinchilla’s role here. The team behind the study state that chinchillas have:

  • A hearing range similar to our own (which means we can hear similar frequencies of noise/high pitch and lower pitch)
  • The ability to learn to respond to stimuli like voices in the same way that we do
  • A docile nature that makes them easy to handle study
  • Similar kinds of hearing loss to people

So, in short, we know lots about the chinchilla’s sense of hearing.

Chinchilla Ears vs. Human Ears

A chinchilla’s ears are anatomically similar to a human’s. The cochlea, which is the hollow spiral-shaped bone in the inner ear that plays a key role in hearing, is a similar relative length in chinchillas as it is in people. It’s also curved in the same way. Chinchillas have a wide eardrum just like ours.

It’s the ‘pinna’ that sets the chinchilla’s ear apart from ours. The pinna is the outside part of the ear that captures sound. It’s much bigger in chinchillas than it is in people.

What’s a Chinchilla’s Hearing Range?

A hearing range is how much an animal can hear from low pitches to high pitches. Each animal has a different limit that relates to what it needs to hear to survive. Rodents often have better hearing at high pitches than we do, for example, because they make lots of high-pitched squeaks to communicate.

A chinchilla’s hearing range is broadly similar to ours. The average chinchilla’s hearing range runs from 50 Hz at the lower end of the spectrum to 33 kHz at the higher end. For comparison, the human hearing range is between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. This means that chinchillas are lots better at hearing higher pitched noises than we are, but slightly worse at hearing lower pitched noises.

What makes this interesting is that chinchillas are rodents. Almost all rodents have completely different hearing ranges to people. The mouse’s hearing range, for example, is between 1000 hZ and 100 kHz. That means they can hear much more high pitched things than chinchillas can, but miss out on the lower end of the range.

Do Chinchillas Have Sensitive Hearing?

However, the range of hearing is a different thing altogether to the sensitivity of a chinchilla’s hearing. So, for example, people can detect a sound at 3 kHz (about medium pitch) even if it’s as quiet as 0 decibels. But to hear a 100 Hz sound, it needs to be at least 40 decibels. This means that a person’s hearing is most sensitive in the mid-range.

So, what about chinchillas? They have more sensitive higher-pitched hearing than we do, because most of their communication is at higher frequencies. This means that sounds like whistling or beeping are louder to chinchillas than to us.

But chinchillas do also seem to have more sensitive hearing in general. Owners frequently report that their chinchillas start barking at noises that the person can’t hear. These noises can come from far away, outside, or sound relatively quiet to us (like the noise of a fridge running).

This is partly why chinchillas are so skittish and should be kept in quiet rooms.

How Do Chinchillas Use Their Sensitive Hearing?

One way in which chinchillas use their high-pitched hearing is to communicate. You can’t hear all of the squeaks and sounds that chinchillas make: only some of them. Much of what they ‘say’, particularly mothers communicating with babies, is too high a pitch for us to hear.

Interestingly, it seems that male chinchillas and female chinchillas don’t have the same hearing range. Females have a higher threshold for low frequency noise and a lower threshold for higher frequency noise. This means they can more easily hear high frequencies, but can’t hear low frequencies as well as males.

How Is a Chinchilla’s Hearing So Sensitive?

chinchilla earsPart of the reason why a chinchilla’s hearing is so sensitive is its large ears. These large ears trap sound waves in the air. The larger the ear, the more sound waves it can collect, and the better the animal can hear quieter sounds.

Another part of the reason is the structure of the ear. Ears work by collecting sound waves from the air; these waves then hit the eardrum, which vibrates. Microscopic hairs in the inner structure of the ear pick up on these vibrations. These hairs create tiny electrical nerve signals when they move which are processed and interpreted by the brain into hearing. The more of these hairs are in the ear, the better the animal can hear.

As for its purpose, sensitive hearing is one of many chinchilla defense tactics these animals use in the wild. Chinchillas are constantly on the lookout (or more accurately, hear-out?) for nearby predators. Hearing predators long before they approach close means the chinchillas have more time to react and hide. So, for a chinchilla sensitive hearing is a useful tool it can use to survive!

Chinchilla Sound Localization

Interestingly, there’s one way that a chinchilla’s hearing is worse than ours. That’s in sound localization.

This is where the animal figures out where a sound is coming from. This is vital information because it tells the animal where a threat like a predator is approaching from.

This process is far more interesting than people realize. When the brain interprets noise, it can tell which sound came from which ear. Depending on the volume of the noise in each ear, the brain can figure out what angle it’s coming from.

Some animals can swivel their ears to help locate sounds. Even though chinchillas can move their ears more than we can, they’re apparently worse than we are at sound localization. They are better at it than other rodents are, but not as good as humans, other primates, or predators.

Can Chinchillas Go Deaf?

Chinchillas can experience hearing loss in the same way that we can, which is why they’re studied so much by scientists. There are two ways they can go deaf: either because they’re going through old age, and their senses naturally decline, or because of loud noises.

Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, is one of the things scientists study chinchillas for. It can either be acute (caused by a sudden loud noise) or chronic (caused by a low level of loud noise over a long period of time). These are the kinds of hearing loss that people experience, too.

This is a form of animal testing that may not be invasive, but is certainly cruel. The chinchillas are kept in an enclosure they can’t escape from, and are put under constant stress from loud noises. One example from a scientific study states:

A subgroup of 16 chinchillas were retested after exposure to simulated M16 rifle fire (150 dB pSPL impulse noise).

That’s exceptionally loud. The scientists then check how well they can hear after having their hearing damaged. In many cases, the animals are ‘sacrificed’ (as it’s called in scientific papers) so that the insides of their ears can be surgically examined.

In fairness, scientists do lean lots about how the sense of hearing works, and how hearing loss damages the ears. But knowing how sweet chinchillas can be, and what wonderful pets they make, it’s difficult to justify from an owner’s point of view.

Age-Related Hearing Loss in Chinchillas

chinchilla earsChinchillas do lose their hearing as they grow older. This is known as ‘presbycusis’, or age-related hearing loss. This applies more to higher frequencies than lower frequencies.

What happens is that the hairs inside the ears are damaged. They can be damaged by sound waves, or simply by age. But once they’re gone, they don’t grow back, and so hearing progressively worsens. As the chinchilla gets older and older, this hearing loss adds up.

This is part of the reason chinchillas live in groups. When one chinchilla senses danger, it will bark loudly so that all the chinchillas can hear it. That way even the elderly in the herd can stay safe!

Can Chinchillas Die From Loud Noises?

It’s a myth that chinchillas or other rodents will die from loud noises. But what is true is that they will startle your pet. They can also damage its hearing in the long term.

What is possible is for the knock-on effects of loud noises to have serious effects on a chinchilla. Chronic stress worsens health. Loud noises and sudden shocks can also cause heart attacks in cases of heart failure, although these are rare in chinchillas.

Chinchillas should be kept in a quiet room so they don’t get too stressed. You can tell that a chinchilla is stressed because it will spend longer than average in its hide, won’t enjoy handling, and will frequently make a barking noise. If your chinchilla is stressed from loud noises or any other cause, move it to another room.

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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!