Chinchillas are well-known as exotic pets. But where do chinchillas come from; what country do chinchillas come from? And are they still common there, or are they endangered now?
What’s the chinchilla’s natural habitat? Chinchillas live in the Andes mountains of Chile, near the Atacama Desert. It is dry, rocky, cold and difficult to access. Before they were widely hunted, they lived across Peru, Bolivia and northwestern Argentina too. Pet chinchillas are originally from here, but were captive-bred in places around the world.
This part of the world is absolutely fascinating. It’s home to unique wildlife (not just the chinchilla!), is mostly untouched, and to top it off is wonderfully beautiful.. The guide below explores this region and answers every possible question about how chinchillas have adapted to it!
Where Do Chinchillas Live in the Wild? (Habitat Facts)
The natural habitat of the chinchilla is in South America. They have historically lived in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru, although they may be extinct in Bolivia and Argentina. Chinchillas live at high altitudes where it’s cool and dry.
This part of the world is dominated by the Andes, one of the biggest mountain ranges on the planet. It’s rocky and sparse, but with lots of tall grass. Scattered about are cacti and succulents, which are plants that excel at holding onto water. They have to be: the Andes are very dry.
Chinchillas will hop from rock to rock to find shelter and burrows, and will spend most of the day feeding on the grasses there. Further down the mountains are smaller foothills which offer more plant diversity, but also more predators. This is perfectly illustrated in the image above.
Chinchillas also live around the world as pets. But this guide focuses instead on wild chinchilla species, of which there are two: the short tailed and the long tailed.
Where Do Chinchillas Live?
Chinchillas have adapted to this environment and use it to their advantage. They spend half of the day sleeping in small rock crevices and burrows. These places provide them with shelter. Chinchillas can also hide under certain large, leafy plants with spiky leaves. They recognize predators coming because chinchillas have great hearing.
This is important because chinchillas are constantly threatened by predators. There are many birds of prey and bigger animals that eat chinchillas here. These hiding places give chinchillas somewhere secure that they can hide if any predators are nearby.
When they aren’t sleeping or hiding, chinchillas scurry about through grass cover to find food. They do so in groups called herds. These herds would historically number up to a hundred, but as there are few chinchillas left, today’s groups are smaller.
Do Chinchillas Burrow Underground?
Chinchillas don’t burrow, even though other similar rodents do.
It’s true that chinchillas live in burrows. However, they don’t dig these burrows or excavate these crevices for themselves. Instead, they find burrows that other animals have made and abandoned. And any rock crevices they inhabit are natural rather than dug by an animal.
Even though it would benefit them, chinchillas don’t burrow because they lack the anatomy to do so. Burrowing animals have big paws with long claws they can shovel dirt with. But a chinchilla’s hands are smaller; they have only tiny fingers and toes with nails rather than claws. So, they couldn’t burrow if they tried.
Do Chinchillas Live at High Elevations?
Most chinchillas live high up in the foothills and mountains of the Andes. Most are found at medium altitudes. The IUCN state that long tailed chinchillas are found between 400 and 1650m (1300 and 5400ft.) while short tailed chinchillas live between 3000 and 6000m (9800 and 19650ft.) For reference, it’s at between 8000 and 12000ft that altitude sickness starts kicking in if you climb a mountain—so this is inhospitable territory.
Chinchillas are only one of many Andes animals which all call this region home. Some of these prey on chinchillas, like the various birds of prey that live there.
The Wild Chinchilla’s Range
The chinchilla’s former range can be seen in the map on the left. Short tailed chinchillas are highlighted in green, with long tail chinchillas in the darker color below.
This may not seem like a large area if you’re not familiar with how big South America is. The colored section of the map is roughly 2900km, or 1750 miles. California is 800 miles north to south, while the United Kingdom is 1000km or 620 miles.
Unfortunately, the pressures of hunting in the 1800s and early 1900s shrank the chinchilla’s natural range.
The Long Tailed Chinchilla’s Range
The IUCN is a worldwide organization that monitors animal species in the wild. They run the ‘Red List’, which is an index of all the endangered species: details on their numbers, their ranges, and so on. According to the IUCN, the image on the right is where long-tailed chinchillas can be found today. This is a fraction of their previous range which formerly extended far further south.
The only reason why the chinchilla’s range is smaller is because of hunting. Chinchilla fur coats became very fashionable in the 1800s, and as mass exports became possible, more and more people hunted for them. They were feared extinct for a long time, which is difficult to believe for an animal that was once as common within its range as rabbits or rats are elsewhere.
Today’s chinchillas may or may not be in decline. It’s difficult to tell because they are skittish, secretive animals that aren’t active during the day. However, charity organizations like Save The Wild Chinchilla, Inc. are doing what they can to monitor and help wild chinchillas.
The Short Tailed Chinchilla’s Range
The same applies to short tail chinchillas. Their range still spans between several countries, but is much smaller than it was a hundred years ago.
It’s short tailed chinchillas that live high up in the Andes. This is evident from their fur, which is thicker than that of the long tailed chinchilla. Their tails are shorter because having a long tail makes an animal lose heat faster.
Long tailed chinchillas are more common than short tailed chinchillas these days. That’s because the short tailed chinchilla’s pelt is more valuable.
Where Do Chinchillas Live in Chile?
Chinchillas are most closely associated with Chile. Most of the chinchilla population was clustered there, and you could find them in the northern half or two thirds of the country (which is saying something, because Chile is big).
They are most commonly associated with the Antofagasta region, but can be found across the north. This area is unique as the terrain steeply climbs from sea level up to the high elevations of the Andes. There are subtypes of chinchillas, not officially recognized as subspecies but different nonetheless, that live in each of these areas: the costina, for example, lives near the coast while la plata and the raton live further inland.
Most of the area between the coast and the mountains is arid (dry) and rocky, with sparse grasses and plants. Chinchillas have adapted both to the temperature and the food available.
Are Pet Chinchillas From Chile?
All chinchillas are originally from Chile, Peru, Bolivia or Argentina. But today’s pet chinchillas are exclusively descended from a small group captured in the early 1900s and imported to the U.S.
These chinchillas were caught in Chile. It’s likely that this early batch were mostly, if not all, long tail chinchillas. It’s possible that small numbers have been exported since then, although this would have been illegal. But either way, you can’t buy either a wild short tailed or long tailed chinchilla from Chile.
What Climate Do Chinchillas Live In?
When you think of South American habitats, you probably think of the Amazon rainforest. But the Amazon isn’t all there is to South America: it’s a fantastically diverse continent with many environments, some hostile, some not.
Chinchillas love cool and dry regions. The west coast of South America is dominated by the Andes, which is a very long mountain range. These mountains are so tall that they cause a huge ‘rain shadow’, where rain almost never falls as weather systems can’t get there. This is the Atacama Desert.
Deserts don’t stop abruptly. They’re typically surrounded by large, rocky areas that are still dry compared to normal habitats, but not quite as ‘bad’ as a desert. Chinchillas are found here, as well as high on the Andean mountain sides.
Here is a picture of the Antofagasta region in Chile. It’s characteristic of where today’s chinchillas like to live. It has:
- High mountain sides
- Lots of grasses for them to feed on
- Large rocks for them to hide under
This area isn’t quite as high up as the Andes. But you can tell from this picture that it’s a dry part of the world. It’s cool, too, which means it ticks every box for a chinchilla.
What Are the Andes Mountains Like?
The Andes mountains are very tall, and run a very long way, from the south to the north of the continent of South America. They are the world’s longest continental mountain range, stretching over 7000km/4350m. At their north end, they touch on the Amazon rainforest.
Chinchilla Climate Adaptations
You can figure out where a chinchilla lives solely from holding one in your hands.
All animals adapt to their environment; chinchillas are no exception. The most obvious adaptation is their thick fur, which is thicker than that of any other animal at 80 hairs per follicle. Chinchillas have this thick coat so they can stay warm high up in the mountains or in the cold nights of the desert.
Another adaptation you’ll notice if you keep one is that they conserve water. They don’t drink frequently, and don’t like foods that contain lots of water. You may have also noticed that a chinchilla’s urine is a deep yellow-orange color. This is all because chinchillas are good at keeping hold of water, as there isn’t much where they live.
Chinchilla Habitat FAQs
With the number of people that own chinchillas, there are lots of random questions we find about their habitat. We couldn’t find answers for them elsewhere, so we thought we’d answer them here.
- Do chinchillas live in the rainforest? The rainforest is the last place a chinchilla could live. Chinchillas like cool and dry conditions, not warm and wet ones.
- Do chinchillas live in Africa? South America is the only continent where wild chinchillas are found. They’re a kind of animal that is highly adapted to one particular location.
- Do chinchillas live in the desert proper? No, they don’t. Their fur is too thick. While the desert nights are cold, temperatures in the Atacama reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit/40 Celsius, which is far too hot.
- Do chinchillas live in the tundra? Chinchillas do live in tundra, specifically Apline tundra. These are cold locations where tree growth is inhibited by temperature and short growing seasons.
- Do chinchillas live in trees? They don’t, as there are no trees where they live. But they are still good at jumping (up to five feet high).
Most of these questions are answered easily enough with research. There are tons of fascinating documentaries and books about wild chinchillas, so if you’d like to learn more, start there!