If you don’t know what a viscacha is, you definitely can’t tell from its unusual name. So what is this mythical beast, and where might you find one?
What is a viscacha? A viscacha (or ‘vizcacha’) is an animal that is closely related to the chinchilla. It looks like a short-tailed chinchilla crossed with a hare, although it isn’t in the same family as rabbits or hares. It has long front teeth, very long whiskers, long rounded ears, a long curly tail, thick fur and a stout body. There are several species: some live in the Andes Mountains while others live in the Argentinian ‘Pampas’ (plains). They are prey animals and herbivores, so mostly eat wild grasses.
Viscachas are perhaps best known for tourists easily mistaking them for chinchillas! There are even some online chinchilla guides that mistakenly use pictures of viscachas—but they’re different species entirely. The guide below first details what a viscacha is and what one looks like, before looking at the different species of viscacha and whether you can get one as a pet.
What Is a Viscacha?
The viscacha (also spelled vizcacha) is a South American rodent that’s closely related to the long-tailed and short-tailed chinchillas. It’s so closely related that it’s in the same family (Chinchillidae). There are two genuses (or ‘genera’) of viscacha. These are Lagidium and Lagostomus.
What Does a Viscacha Look Like?
The answer depends on which kind of viscacha you mean. But the most common kinds, i.e. the various species of mountain viscacha, look like a cross between a hare and a chinchilla. They are bigger than chinchillas, and have strong hind legs, which means they’re good at jumping. They have shorter front legs/paws that they use to hold food or run on all fours.
Viscachas have distinctive fur which is brown on top and a lighter shade on the bottom; this is perhaps the easiest way to tell them apart from ‘regular’ chinchillas. Viscachas also have:
- Thick fur like chinchillas do, to keep warm high up in the mountains
- Four large front teeth (incisors)
- Long ears that look more like those of a hare or a rabbit than a mouse, like a chinchilla’s
- A fluffy, curly tail like a squirrel
Another central difference is that viscachas are much heavier than chinchillas. They can weigh up to 6.6lbs/3kgs.
Despite looking so much like rabbits, they aren’t closely related. Instead, the viscacha is very closely related to the chinchilla, hence its inclusion in the same family. It’s also closely related to the chinchilla rat.
Where Does The Viscacha Live?
The viscacha’s natural habitat is in South America. It lives in the same places that chinchillas do.
More specifically, it’s from the Andes. The Andes are tall mountains that dominate the west coast of South America. They run all the way from the southern tip of the continent in Argentina, all the way to the north in Colombia, where South America meets Central America. And on top of being the longest mountain range in the world, they’re tall, too.
Most viscacha species live high up in the Andes mountains, at elevations of 13000ft and higher. The viscacha has adapted well to this habitat: it has thick fur to keep warm, long legs to leap from one rock to another, and large ears to hear predators coming from far away. There are other viscacha species that don’t live in the mountains. The plains viscacha lives in the plains of Argentina. This species has consequently evolved to look quite different to its mountain cousins.
All viscachas live in burrows, but mountain viscachas don’t dig these burrows for themselves. That’s because their paws are fleshy and small, more like hands with fingernails than paws with claws. Rather than dig their own burrows, they use abandoned ones that other animals have made, or natural crevices formed in the rocks. That’s what chinchillas do, too.
Plains viscachas dig their own elaborate burrow complexes, though. Locals call these viscacheras.
What Do Viscachas Eat?
Viscachas are herbivores. They eat wild grasses, of which there are many species where they live.
To supplement this diet, viscachas likely eat nuts, seeds and roots too. Roots are particularly useful as they store water, which can be in short supply in the dry season. Nuts and seeds provide much-needed fat and protein, of which there’s less in grasses. It’s possible that they may also eat insects when the opportunity arises, again to supplement the diet, although this isn’t clear.
The reason we don’t know much about the diet of the viscacha (or the chinchilla, for that matter) is that they’re secretive animals so aren’t easily studied.
How Do Viscachas Reproduce?
This is another way that viscachas are similar to chinchillas. Rodents are famed for having lots of litters with lots of babies/kits/young in each one. House mice, for example, only gestate their young (are only pregnant) for twenty days, and when they give birth, they give birth to six young on average each time. Pairs can manage 200 young in a year.
Viscachas, though, have a three month gestation period. That’s not unlike the long and short-tailed chinchillas, which have a 110 day gestation period. And when the viscacha has a litter, it’s typically a litter of only one. This means that viscachas have ‘only’ two or three young a year.
What Species of Viscacha Are There?
Unlike the chinchilla, there are more than two species of viscacha. Most of these live in the Andes, while one lives in the plains of Argentina. Each species looks slightly different, for example its tail being longer or shorter, its body being thinner or stouter, or its diet not being the same.
Mountain Viscacha vs. Plains Viscacha
Like the chinchilla, there are several species of viscacha.
- The plains viscacha (Lagostomus maximus) is from Argentina. Like the chinchilla, it lives in large colonies, and is very communicative. Individuals can make alarm calls to warn the rest of the group of approaching predators. As the name suggests, it lives in the plains (‘pampas’) of Argentina, unlike the rest of the viscacha and chinchilla species.
- The northern viscacha (Lagidium peruanum) is from the Peruvian Andes. This species lives in groups too, but smaller groups almost like families that make up larger communities.
- The southern viscacha (Lagidium viscacia), also known as the mountain viscacha, is similar to the northern viscacha, but its fur is more red in color. It too lives in the Andes, only further south than the northern viscacha.
- Lagidium ahuacaense is a recently-discovered species. It loves in the mountains of Ecuador, and was only first discovered by modern science in 2005. Because it lives hundreds of miles away from the nearest extant viscacha population centers, it’s thought that only a dozen or so remain in the wild.
- Wolffsohn’s viscacha (Lagidium wolffsohni) is a rare species from Argentina and Chile. It lives in the mountains, but not much else is known about it.
As they live in such remote places, it’s still possible that there are undiscovered viscacha species in the Andes. Given that the last species was only discovered in 2005, that’s not a remote possibility.
Plains Viscacha (Lagostumus Maximus)
The plains viscacha is the most distinctive of all the viscachas. It is a slightly different shape, but most obviously has completely different markings. It has alternating light and dark stripes running horizontally across its face. It looks almost like a raccoon or a badger. In its overall shape, it’s like a mountain viscacha, hare-like; but its head is almost shaped like a guinea pig’s (albeit bigger).
This species lives in a special kind of plain in Argentina. This plain is called the Pampas, coming from the native Quechua word ‘pampa’, meaning ‘plain’. It’s an area of lowlands that covers almost 500,000 square miles, and includes the most populous area of Argentina, plus all of Uruguay and part of southern Brazil.
Unlike the Andes, the Pampas is a temperate region, which is partly why the vizcachas here don’t look like the ones from the mountains. Winters here are mild, with the temperature not normally dipping below freezing unless there’s a cold snap; and summers are hot, much hotter than viscachas and chinchillas are normally used to. If you put a regular chinchilla here in the summer, it would overheat in minutes!
Is a Viscacha a Kind Of Chinchilla?
This is an interesting point. When people talk about ‘chinchillas’, they don’t mean viscachas. These animals aren’t well known outside of their native range in South America. But strictly speaking, viscachas are a kind of chinchilla. That’s because they’re a part of the Chinchillidae family. They were placed there because they share a recent common ancestor with chinchillas, which is why they share many of the same features.
How Are Chinchillas and Viscachas Related?
The great thing about this question is that nobody knows the precise answer.
Despite chinchillas being such a popular subject of scientific study (and a popular pet to boot), fossil ancestors of any chinchilla species have yet to be found. That applies to short tails, long tails and all mountain viscacha species. As such, it’s assumed that they have a common ancestor because a) they’re so similar and b) they live in the same place; but as for precisely when they diverged into separate species, and which species they both came from, isn’t known.
The plains viscacha on the other hand does have relatives in the fossil record. Fossils from the Early Miocene Epoch, which was between 23.8 and 20.5 million years ago, have been found in South America. The genus that the plains viscacha is a part of (Lagostominae) contains two other genera which are now extinct: Pliolagostomus and Prolagostomus. There are many species in each of these genera, many of which lived further west towards the Andes than today’s plains viscacha. Little is known about them.
Can You Get a Pet Viscacha?
Viscachas aren’t currently kept as pets. They’re larger than chinchillas, and haven’t been successfully domesticated. If they were, they would have similar needs to pet chinchillas: they would likely thrive on hay, and would need temperature- and humidity-controlled cages with lots of room to move and jump. Like chinchillas, they would also do best in pairs.
If anything, viscachas are seen as pests. That’s because they can strip the ground bare of vegetation quicker than any farm animal, and as there are lots of cattle and similar farm animals raised in South America, that’s a big problem. Many farmers shoot them on sight like other farmers shoot rabbits.