Wild chinchillas don’t have access to the same foods that pet chinchillas do, as they live in a completely different habitat. The question is how different is their diet.
What do wild chinchillas eat? They eat grass species like Nasella chilensis, Festuca, Senecio chilensis and Stipa chrysophylla. Wild chinchillas eat many/most of the plants in their habitats. They eat succulents like Puya berteroniana as it’s difficult for chinchillas to find water otherwise. Long tailed chinchillas have a different diet to short tailed chinchillas as they live in different places.
Aside from this, little is known about the wild chinchilla diet. That’s because they are a secretive crepuscular/nocturnal species, with a small wild population, which live somewhere inhospitable. The guide below summarizes everything we know.
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What Do Long Tailed Chinchillas Eat in the Wild?
Wild long tailed chinchillas eat different things to pet chinchillas. The wild chinchilla diet consists of fibrous grass, similar to a pet chinchilla’s hay. It’s also possible, but not proven, that they eat seeds, nuts and insects.
Unlike pet chinchillas, wild chinchillas eat a wide range of foods. There are several reasons for this which are explored later. For now, let’s take a look at each of the plant species they eat, starting with the most common.
1) Nassella Chilensis
This is a kind of needlegrass native to Chile, also known as Chilean tussockgrass. It’s long, thin, and fibrous. It’s also the main thing that wild chinchillas eat. Chinchillas prefer the dried, dead blades/leaves of this plant which are similar to the kind of hay you feed pet chinchillas.
The needlegrass family contains around 150 species of grass. They are classified together because they all have pointed grains, unlike other kinds of grass. They also have what look like long hairs pointing out from the head of each grain.
Plants in this family thrive in dry areas, which is why they’re so common where chinchillas live. The bush-like bunches they form, called tussocks, can grow up to three feet high.
Interestingly enough, this plant has been accidentally introduced to the United States. The USDA‘s online database states that it’s present in Oregon, although how widespread it is isn’t clear, nor whether it’s an invasive species outcompeting native plants. A book on the subject suggests that it was introduced through a ballast dump, which is where a boat dumps its ballast when it doesn’t need it anymore. A boat coming from Chile must have left it there. However, it was found way back in 1917, so whether it’s still present in Oregon isn’t known.
2) Puya Berteroniana
This is a kind of succulent, a family of plants which are like cacti but without thin spikes. These too thrive in dry areas, just like cacti, by holding on to large reserves of water in their chunky leaves.
This species looks like pampas grass crossed with aloe vera. Each leaf radiates out from a center, before cresting and pointing downwards. Like an aloe, which is also a succulent, these plants have spikes on their leaves.
As a succulent, this species contains lots of water, so is a key water source in the dry Chilean highlands. Chinchillas don’t feed on this plant as regularly, which suggests that they do so when thirsty rather than hungry. They can also feed on dead and dried leaves which are caught in the plant’s living leaf structure.
It’s also known as the turquoise puya or blue puya because of the color of its flowers. Its flowers are what it’s known for, and it’s described as ‘shockingly beautiful’. It forms natural tall bouquets of deep purple-blue flowers, punched through by bunches of leaves arranged in spikes. Other kinds have different color flowers. Because the region is so dry, some specimens bloom only once in a hundred years. Once they bloom, they die.
Interestingly, chinchillas also make use of this species by hiding under it. The spiky and rigid leaves stop larger animals from getting close-in. Any predators which do can get caught and even die between its leaves. This fact means it’s considered ‘protocarnivorous’, because the animals decompose and feed the plant. Plus, as a bromeliad, it’s related to the pineapple. It’s like a plant from outer space!
3) Bridgesia Incisifolia
This is a kind of woody shrub native to Chile, which likes living near the coast. It’s like a short tree, with lots of small leaves and gnarled branches. It’s leaves have small rounded points which are reminiscent of those of oak leaves.
According to a paper in the Journal of Arid Environments, this shrub is ‘the most palatable’ of all the shrubs available for herbivorous animals to eat in semi-arid Northern Chile. It also has high levels of calcium and phosphorus, which can be hard to come by in a herbivorous diet.
These three species are the ones that wild chinchillas eat the most. This was found by scientists writing a paper for the journal Mammalian Biology. They studied the feces of chinchillas found in their natural habitat and analyzed it to see what it contained, and these plants were the most common.
However, there are plenty more plants that wild chinchillas feed on.
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What Do Short Tailed Chinchillas Eat in the Wild?
Studies suggest that short tailed chinchillas have a different diet to long tailed chinchillas. This may be because of species, or because they live in a different place. This has been shown by similar analyses to the one described above, where the scientists looked at the chinchilla’s feces to see what it had eaten.
1) Festuca Grass
Festuca is a genus of grasses which includes dozens of different species. The various species are found all around the world, and is closely related to rye grass.
One kind of Festuca grass which grows in Chile is Festuca ortophylla. This grass grows in clumps of long, spiny needles. It’s perennial, which means it grows year round, and is found in the Antofagasta region (as well as across South America in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador). It thrives in arid regions.
There are lots more Festuca species in Chile. PhytoTaxa states that there are 19 recognized species which thrive all across the country. Precisely which ones short tailed chinchillas will and won’t eat depends on where the plant grows, because some grow in water (Festuca hypsophila) while others grow in humid/wet areas (Festuca acanthophylla).
2) Senecio Chilensis
This plant is known as a ‘subshrublet’ on account of its small size. It has a bunched base with short, pointed leaves, again like rosemary. These densely packed stalks are covered in tiny hairs.
From this base come long, elegant stalks which hold aloft pretty yellow flowers. It’s the stalks and leaves that chinchillas are interested in. This plant grows from near sea level up to 2000m; today’s short tailed chinchillas typically live higher than this, but before they were hunted to near extinction, they lived here too. There may still be populations at this level, but they haven’t yet been found.
Besides this species, there are several more in the genus Senecio which are native to Chile, some of which the chinchilla likely eats.
3) Stipa Chrysophylla
This is yet another kind of grass. It has a long head of grains, so it looks like the wild grasses you can find in the U.S. (and aroudn the world). The grains are surrounded and exceeded by long hairs which give the heads a distinctive appearance.
The reason short tailed chinchillas mostly eat grass is because that’s mostly what grows at such high and arid elevations. The lack of water is why short-tails have become so good at conserving the stuff.
Do Wild Chinchillas Have a Varied Diet?
Wild chinchillas eat somewhere between 20-40 different species of plant. They eat more different species during the more wet and humid seasons, and focus only on a smaller number during the warmer, dryer seasons.
There may be more that it’s likely to eat, although scientists can’t say for sure. These are common grazing plants which grazers like chinchillas in Chile eat, but as of yet, haven’t been found in a chinchilla’s feces. This means there’s a high likelihood but no evidence that they eat these plants too.
What Other Plants Do Wild Chinchillas Eat?
These plants make up more or less of a chinchilla’s diet depending on what’s available. So, if other grazers have eaten all of the Nasella chilensis, then a chinchilla might eat more Stipa plumosa instead.
- Heliotropium stenophyllum. A shrub with thin, dense leaves which look like rosemary. Native to central Chile and has white flowers.
- Flourensia thurifera. A shrub with widely-distributed, flat leaves that look like holly. Endemic to Chile but not particularly common.
- Cordia decandra. Another woody shrub, but this one has sparse, thin leaves. Lives in full sunlight in extremely dry conditions, hence the lack of leaves. Saves up its water to create huge white blooms of flowers. Has higher protein levels than other native plants.
- Llagunoa glandulosa. A shrub with leaves like a lemon tree, and large, bulbous green-yellow fruits. Chinchillas can eat both the plant and the fruit.
- Stipa plumosa. A kind of grass with a feathery head. Similar to Nasella chilensis, and in the same genus as Stipa chrysophylla.
Chinchillas also eat a variety of small seeds which are difficult to identify through study. These contain more protein and fat per weight than a chinchilla’s normal diet, so it’s likely that they ‘top up’ what they eat every now and again with either seeds or insects.
Other species of plant which wild chinchillas may eat include:
- Astephanus geminiflorus (a succulent)
- Glandularia sulphurea
- Pleurophora pusilla (another succulent)
- Apium laciniatum (a type of celery)
- Cistanthe (Calandrinia) grandiflora (a succulent)
- Moscharia pinnatifida (an herb)
- Colliguaja odorifera (a succulent which produces large fruits)
- Adiantum chilense
- Oxalis carnosa
- Rhodophiala phycelloides
- Adesmia microphylla
- Lycium chilense
- Echinopsis chiloensis
- Proustia baccharoides
- Oxalis gigantea
- Porlieria chilensis
- Ephedra andina
- Proustia cuneifolia
- Opuntia ovata
- Notholaena mollis/Cheilanthes mollis
- Leucocoryne purpurea
- Lobelia polyphylla
- Heliotropium stenophyllum
- Erodium cicutarium
- Ephedra chilensis
- Flourensia thurifera
- Dioscorea humifusa
- Berberis glomerata
According to a paper published in Mammalian Biology, chinchillas make use of most of the plants available to them. They eat around 55% of all 38 available plant species during the rainy season. This drops to the still reasonably high 40.7% during the dry season, when chinchillas need to focus on foods with high water content.
Do Wild Chinchillas Have a Good Diet?
Wild chinchillas are limited in what they can eat because of their location. The high-altitude, arid Andes don’t allow for as many plant species as places closer to the coast. This is why chinchillas make use of more than half of the plants available to them.
That being said, a pet chinchilla’s diet is likely better for it than the diet of wild chinchillas. That’s because the hay you feed a pet chinchilla is of a more consistent quality, and the pellets you feed it may be supplemented with a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Do Wild Chinchillas Get All the Nutrients They Need?
Wild chinchillas can lack certain nutrients. That’s especially the case during the drier months, which run from the end of Summer until the beginning of Spring. That’s because without rain, fewer plants grow.
Do Wild Chinchillas Eat Insects?
It’s commonly stated in blogs, guides and handbooks that wild chinchillas eat insects. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that this is true. In the course of researching this article, the LMC team haven’t found any papers of books on real wild chinchillas which says that they do.
Eating insects would serve an obvious need: it would provide a relatively high protein snack compared to the grasses these animals normally eat. But the fecal analysis short tailed chinchillas in Mammalian Biology didn’t find any insect remains, nor the other papers referenced here.
As such, there’s no definitive proof that they do, although they may.
How Do Chinchillas Get Their Food in the Wild?
Chinchillas are folivore foragers. This means that they continually forage for leaves and blades of grass to eat. This leads to behavior similar to many other animals, which spend their days constantly grazing for food. Chinchillas live in groups, and forage together.
As they eat common grasses, chinchillas aren’t typically short of food. Tussockgrass and similar species grow throughout the chinchilla habitat, even on the outskirts of the Atacama desert. This means that chinchillas don’t have to travel far to find something to eat.
The only issue is that of drought. These plants grow best after rainfall, even if slight. If there hasn’t been any rainfall for a long time, as often happens in this arid part of the world, there can be less food. Then, the chinchillas will have to search harder for something to eat.
Aside from this, little is known about wild chinchillas’ diets. That’s in part because of their small population, and because of the inaccessibility of the region. As such, it’s possible that further research will be done in the future on this fascinating topic.
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