Short tail chinchillas and long tail chinchillas coexist in the wild, although both are threatened with extinction. Owners can assume that their pet chinchillas are the same as wild ones, but they aren’t; so how are these subspecies different?
How are short tail chinchillas and long tail chinchillas different? Short tail chinchillas have shorter tails, stouter and heavier bodies, thicker necks and thicker fur. They live higher up the Andes mountains than long tail chinchillas, which live in the foothills instead. There are more long tails left in the wild because their fur is thinner and less valuable.
Both long tails and short tails are different to pet chinchillas. That’s because pet chinchillas have been domesticated and bred for certain traits. But fascinating questions remain, like are pet chinchillas descended from long tail chinchillas? And can pet chinchillas live alongside short tails and long tails in the wild?
The post below explores these questions, and more…
Are Short and Long Tail Chinchillas Different Species?
Short and long tail chinchillas are considered separate species by scientists. You can tell from their scientific names:
- Short tail chinchillas are called Chinchilla brevicaudata
- Long tail chinchillas are called Chinchilla lanigera
The first part of the name refers to the genus that the animal is in, while the second part refers to the species. Animals in the same genus are closely related, but not closely related enough to be the same species.
Scientific names normally describe the species in some way. ‘Chinchilla’ comes from ‘Chincha’, the name of the people who historically lived near the chinchillas and introduced them to the Western world. ‘Brevicaudata’ comes from Latin, ‘brevi-‘ meaning short and ‘caudata’ meaning tail.
Lanigera similarly describes the species, as it means woolly. Chinchillas don’t have a woollen coat; they have thick fur instead. But the idea was to designate it as a thick coat-bearing animal, which is accurate enough.
Chinchilla Chinchilla vs Chinchilla Brevicaudata
If you research the scientific names of the chinchilla, you’ll find several different ones. Sometimes short tailed chinchillas are called Chinchilla chinchilla and sometimes they’re called Chinchilla brevicaudata. These two scientific names refer to the same species.
The reason for this is that scientific designations are not set in stone. Zoologists change their minds all the time about whether a certain animal is the same species as another. What can happen is that two zoologists or biologists write scientific papers describing a new species at the same time, and use different names for them.
Something else that can happen, and is what happened with the short tailed chinchilla, is that scientists can disagree about whether a certain species is the original or representative animal of that genus. When scientists think that a species is the representative of its genus, they give it a ‘tautonym’, which is to name it the same thing twice, e.g. Chinchilla chinchilla. But other scientists may not think this is correct, so will give it another name, i.e. Chinchilla brevicaudata.
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What Do Short Tail Chinchillas Look Like?
The reason short and long tail chinchillas are separate species is partly that they are anatomically different. They look different enough that you can tell them apart as a novice.
Short tail chinchillas are larger than long tail chinchillas. They have bulkier bodies and shorter tails. Their fur is thicker, too, as they live at higher altitudes. While they are bigger, they look more rounded because of their thick fur and stout bodies. This obvious rounded appearance combined with a short tail is easy to spot.
What Do Long Tail Chinchillas Look Like?
Long tail chinchillas are smaller and less rounded. Their tails are long and bushy, covered in long hairs rather than short fur, almost like a gray squirrel. Being less rounded, the long tail also has a longer neck.
Another difference is the long tail chinchilla’s ears. The short tail’s ears are small and rounded, and while they don’t sit completely flush with the back of the head, they do point backwards somewhat. A long tail chinchilla’s ears are rounded but longer, and are prone to pointing upwards.
La Plata vs Costina vs Raton Chinchillas
Other designations further confuse owners and breeders. There are three more subtypes that you may have heard of, which are La Plata, Costina and Raton.
These are subtypes of the long tail chinchilla. They aren’t considered subspecies, and the differences between them have not been thoroughly studied by scientists. The names relate to where the chinchillas are found.
- Costina is the easiest to guess at the meaning of. These chinchillas come from closer to the coast than other kinds. This means they live at lower altitudes, so have thinner fur. Their ears are close together. It has distinctive long hind legs, with shorter forelegs, which are additionally closer together. Its spine has a pronounced arch, a prominent pointed nose, and it has a deep neck line.
- La plata chinchillas look like smaller versions of short tail chincihllas. They have stockier, better developed muscles and bone structure than the other two types. Like the short tail, it is more rounded and blocky, but is much smaller. The ears of this subtype are further apart than in the costina.
- Raton chinchillas are more like the la plata subtype than the costina. The major difference is that their noses are more pointed, and their ears are much closer together. It’s also smaller in size than the other two types.
Despite their obvious differences, these types are not considered subspecies. Some people think that they should be, though.
Short vs Long Tail Chinchilla Weight
Short tail chinchillas weigh significantly more than long tail chinchillas. Long tails weigh 410-420g on average, while short tails weigh 1.1kg+. Females weigh more than males.
This is partly because of the short tail chinchilla’s larger body; while the long tail has a longer tail, it doesn’t weigh much. It’s also because of the short tail chinchilla’s thicker, denser fur.
This is immediately obvious when you compare the body size of the two species. Short tails are much larger overall, and look stocky and heavy while long tail chinchillas look light.
Short vs Long Tail Chinchilla Length
Long tail chinchillas reach only 10 inches long at most. This is shorter than both pet chinchillas and short tail chinchillas. Their tail makes up a significant portion of this length, at up to a third. Short tail chinchillas are significantly longer at between 11 and 19 inches.
The long tail chinchilla’s tail isn’t just stretched out. It’s longer because it has more vertebrae in it. The long tail chinchilla has 23 vertebrae in its tail (caudal vertebrae), while the short tail chinchilla has only 20 vertebrae in its tail. This is a major reason why they’re considered separate species rather than subtypes.
Blocky vs Pinched Chinchilla
Chinchilla breeders use the terms ‘blocky’ and ‘pinched’ to refer to the shape of their animals. Short tail chinchillas are considered blocky, while long tail chinchillas are considered pinched.
This refers specifically to the shape of the chinchilla’s back and shoulders. A pinched chinchilla has a normal-sized behind, but narrow shoulders, so it looks like a wedge from the top. It’s as if the shoulders have been pinched. A blocky chinchilla, by comparison, has broad shoulders the same width as its behind. Breeders and chinchilla show standards consider blocky chinchillas to be better.
Short Tail vs Long Tail Chinchilla Coat
Both short and long tail chinchillas have soft, dense fur. That of the short tail is longer and softer, however. The long tail’s fur is between 0.8 and 1.6in long. There are no scientific sources that specify how long the fur of a short tail chinchilla is, but trappers consistently preferred their coats as they were thicker and longer.
The reason for this is that short tail chinchillas live in a colder habitat. Short tail chinchillas live higher up in the Andes mountains, where it’s colder. Having thicker fur keeps the short tail chinchilla warmer. It’s for this reason that short tails are now less common than long tails, as short tails were hunted nearly to extinction for their coats.
Where Do Short Tail Chinchillas Live?
The next difference between short and long tail chinchillas is where they live. Short tail chinchillas live higher up in the mountains of the Andes than long tail chinchillas. That’s why they have thicker fur, so that they can hold onto body heat better in the cold winter nights. Today, they specifically live higher than 3000m above sea level, although they can survive at lower altitudes too (1000-3000m).
This high-up habitat is at the edge of the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. Short tail chinchillas made this almost-deserted place their own. The picture below is from the border between Chile and Argentina, however, where short tail chinchillas may now be extinct.
Where Do Long Tail Chinchillas Live?
Long tail chinchillas live further down in the foothills of the Andes. This area is characterized by sharply rolling rocky hills at between 1000-3000m above sea level. This dramatic rocky landscape is the reason why chinchillas are so good at jumping to and from platforms in their cages.
The foothills of these mountains can be seen in the bottom right corner of the picture to the left. The nooks between these rock formations provide safe places for chinchillas to escape predators.
Are Wild Chinchillas Different to Pet Chinchillas?
Private owners and breeders have tried to introduce the pet chinchilla into the Andes. However, these attempts were not successful, as the domestic chinchilla and wild chinchillas are different.
It’s thought that pet chinchillas are descended from long tail chinchillas. That’s because they are more like long tails in appearance and fur thickness. It’s also more likely because long tail chinchillas weren’t trapped by hunters as much as short tails because their fur isn’t as thick or valuable; so, when chinchillas were first caught to be domesticated, it was mostly long tails that were left.
The reason pet chinchillas aren’t the same is that they have been bred for certain traits.
Like other pet animals have long since become completely different to their wild counterparts. Breeders select for traits that make their domesticated long tail chinchillas look more like short tail chinchillas: larger rounded body and improved fur quailty. Their diets, too, have changed because pet chinchillas are fed hay while wild chinchillas eat wild plants.
It’s possible that careful reintroduction by an official charity or scientific body might work, but this has not yet been done.
Can You Breed a Long Tail Chinchilla with a Short Tail Chinchilla?
There are mixed opinions as to whether this is possible. Some people say that domestic chinchillas are a mixture of short tail and long tail chinchillas which were bred together. Other owners say that breeding a short tail chinchilla to a long tail chinchilla results in sterile offspring, so breeding the offspring is impossible.
The reason why nobody knows is that it’s illegal to export wild chinchillas from Chile. The Chilean government (and the governments of other South American nations where chinchillas are/were present) made it so in the early 1900s, long after the damage had been done to wild populations. As such, nobody can take wild chinchillas and breed them; they can only breed domesticated chinchillas, whose genetics have long since changed compared to their wild counterparts.
Small numbers of wild chinchillas may have been periodically introduced into breeding stock since they were first domesticated. But as this is an illegal practice, it’s not clear who may have done this or when. So, this question remains unanswered.