If you’ve researched chinchillas before, you may have heard of a ‘chinchilla rat’. But what is that—a chinchilla crossed with a rat, another species, or another family?
What is a chinchilla rat? Chinchilla rats are nine or ten species of animal grouped in the family Abrocomidae. They are found in and around the Andes Mountains, the tallest mountain range in the Americas and the longest in the world. They have thick fur and long tails, and look like a chinchilla with a rat’s longer body shape (although different species have different appearances). They are not kept as pets.
The guide below first looks at what a chinchilla rat is and what one looks like, where they live, and what family they’re in. It will explore the most interesting species in more depth before addressing whether you can keep one as a pet (and why/why not).
What Is a Chinchilla Rat?
Chinchilla rats are neither rats nor chinchillas. They are rodents that look a lot like chinchillas, and live in the same place as the chinchillas we know and love; but there are several key differences between these two different families.
These animals live in the Andes Mountains, inhabiting small cracks between rocks or burrows that other animals dug. They are social, too, and live in large groups like chinchillas do. While it’s thought that they’re herbivorous, this isn’t known for sure, as the Andes are remote and these animals are secretive; but they likely eat grasses, plant roots and perhaps the occasional insect.
What Does a Chinchilla Rat Look Like?
Chinchilla rats, as the name suggests, look like a rat crossed with a chinchilla. Rather than relying on a description, take a look at this drawing of one:
As you can see, chinchilla rats have distinct features. They have large eyes, large rounded ears, and grey or brown fur. But their bodies are longer and more rat shaped than chinchilla shaped. Their faces are slightly more pointed than a regular chinchilla. But the key difference is in the tail, which is long, but not furry like a chinchilla’s.
They have reasonably thick fur, albeit not as thick as that of a chinchilla. These animals are sometimes trapped and their fur sold at local markets, although it’s reported that it only makes a small profit. This doesn’t seem to have severely impacted population numbers, although studies on these animals are scarce.
One adaptation the chinchilla has to its environment is its hairy hind toes. These are used for combing its fur and to assist in digging. They have four front toes and five rear toes. Unlike chinchillas, chinchilla rats can dig their own burrows, although they don’t always—instead making use of existing cracks in the rock.
Where Do Chinchilla Rats Live?
Making matters even more confusing, chinchilla rats live in the same place as chinchillas do: the Andes Mountains. These mountains run all the way along the west coast of South America, from Argentina in the south to Colombia in the north. They are very tall, very cold and very dry, hence why many animals that live there have adapted to have thick fur and to conserve water.
The chinchilla is restricted to Chile, although in the past, it was found in other countries too. The chinchilla rat, though, is still found in Chile, Peru, Argentina and more. There are several species across this range, but all the chinchilla rats are grouped in the same family of animals. That’s because they’re closely related to one another.
Unsurprisingly, the rodents that live here have adapted to the rockiness of the habitat. Chinchilla rats live in burrows, often burrows that have been dug by other animals. These burrows are shared with other members of the same species as chinchilla rats live in groups; they may also share the burrows with other rodents like degus or chinchillas.
A chinchilla rat burrow can be identified because these animals create ‘latrines’, as can be seen in the image above. To keep the burrow clean, the chinchilla rat will head to the opening of the burrow and go to the toilet there. These latrines can grow to ten feet high, and become as hard as the rock they’re fused to. Pet chinchillas display similar behavior by picking a corner of the cage to pee in, then only peeing there.
Is a Chinchilla Rat a Chinchilla or a Rat?
The chinchilla rat, despite its name and appearance, is neither a chinchilla nor a rat. Chinchilla rats are grouped together in their own family, while chinchillas and rats are grouped in their own respective families.
The reason chinchilla rats look like other rodents is that most rodents look alike anyway. And considering that chinchillas and chinchilla rats live in roughly the same habitats, it’s little wonder that they developed similar features (like thick fur).
What Family Is The Chinchilla Rat In?
All species of chinchilla rat are in the Abrocomidae family. There are only nine or ten known living species of chinchilla rat, and they are all grouped in this family. They all share characteristics, and scientists consider them to have a recent common ancestor, hence why they’re grouped together.
This family is part of the larger grouping Caviomorpha, which is what long and short tailed chinchillas are a part of. But regular chinchillas are part of another family called Chinchillidae, meaning that scientists don’t consider chinchillas and chinchilla rats to be too closely related.
There are two genuses in the family Abrocomidae. That’s because there are two branches of the family; these branches are like cousins to each other, while the members of each branch are like siblings. There is the Abrocomid genus, which contains most of the species. Then, there is the Cuscomys genus, which contains only two (very rare) species.
The living species of chinchilla rat aren’t all entirely alike. Some have fascinating histories.
The Macchu Picchu Arboreal Chinchilla Rat
This animal was first known from skeletal remains found during a scientific expedition. The Peruvian Expedition of 1912 was the third in a series undertaken by scientists from Yale, who travelled to Peru to search for new species; they found that these rodents, a previously unknown species, were buried with Incan people in their tombs. As fascinating a discovery as this was, the bones couldn’t be matched with any living species, and they were considered extinct.
But it’s years later that the story becomes interesting. In 2009, a park ranger named Roberto Quispe—who works near the location the 1912 expedition found those skulls—found a real, living version. He and his team were smart enough to take photos, and the finding was later confirmed by a team from Mexico, who found their own specimens during field work. While the species is thought to be endangered, that’s a definite step up from ‘extinct’.
Like other chinchilla rats, this species looks like a chinchilla with a rat-shaped body; but the fur is a darker brown in this species, and it has a distinctive vertical stripe between its eyes. Interestingly enough, other species are still being discovered in the same area, so there may be more chinchilla rats hiding out near Macchu Picchu.
Something else that makes these rodents stand out is that they’re arboreal. That means that it can live in trees, unlike the other chinchilla rats in this list. That’s probably why some of the first photos of this species show it climbing all over the man that discovered it!
This species is a member of the Cuscomys genus. The only other species in the same genus is the Ashaninka arboreal chinchilla rat. It looks similar, so initially, it was thought that the Macchu Picchu specimen could have been an Ashaninka specimen. But they are morphologically different enough to be considered separate species.
Bennett’s Chinchilla Rat
Bennett’s chinchilla rat is perhaps the most common of all nine species. It’s certainly more common than the Macchu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat. It’s found only in Chile, but it’s found there in numbers big enough that mean it’s far from endangered. This species is the largest in the family, at eight inches long. That’s shorter than your average chinchilla, but big for a rodent. Its tail is almost the same size again, giving it a total length, tail included, of about 15in.
What’s interesting about this species is its place in history. The drawing of the chinchilla rat above (in the What Does a Chinchilla Rat Look Like section) was made the first time this family was discovered by scientists. But it wasn’t just any scientist that found this species: it was Charles Darwin and his team when they visited the area. It was drawn and published in the 1836 book “The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle“. Darwin’s most famous observations—relating to the birds and other fauna of the Galapagos Islands—were made nearby, as the Galapagos are off the west coast of South America, not far from Peru (relatively speaking). It was his time here that informed his later book On The Origin of Species.
Bolivian Chinchilla Rat
The Bolivian chinchilla rat isn’t the most interesting in its own right. But it does live somewhere fascinating.
The Bolivian chinchilla rat lives somewhere called the ‘cloud forest‘, which is a wonderful kind of habitat found only in select places around the world. Cloud forests are forests typically at the feet of mountains that are permanently or frequently foggy/cloudy. This occurs because mountain ranges physically block clouds from passing over them; the effect is heightened by the forest ‘breathing’, as trees and vegetation give off moisture during respiration.
Because of the abundance of moisture, these forests are home to all sorts of interesting mosses, plants and trees. Lots of plants means lots of animals, and the chinchilla rat is one of many to call this place home. Unfortunately, cloud forests (and other habitats besides) in this region are being cleared so that cattle can be raised there instead. This may have led to this species becoming extinct; scientists aren’t sure as it’s such a remote place.
There are other species besides this. Scientists disagree on the exact number of species in the genus. That’s because a) entirely species are still being discovered, and b) animals that were previously considered the same species are, perhaps, not. That’s why some sources say there are as little as four species while others say nine. Recognized species include:
- Abrocoma bennettii – Bennett’s chinchilla rat
- Abrocoma boliviensis – Bolivian chinchilla rat
- Abrocoma budini – Budin’s chinchilla rat
- Abrocoma cinerea – ashy chinchilla rat
- Abrocoma famatina – Famatina chinchilla rat
- Abrocoma schistacea – Sierra del Tontal chinchilla rat
- Abrocoma uspallata – Uspallata chinchilla rat
- Abrocoma vaccarum – Punta de Vacas chinchilla rat or Mendozan chinchilla rat
- Cuscomys ashaninka – Asháninka arboreal chinchilla rat
- Cuscomys oblativus – Machu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat
It’s possible that there are more species out there, but they haven’t yet been found.
The Protabrocoma Genus
Last but not least, we have two species in a third genus: Protabrocoma. These two species are Protabrocoma antigua and Protabrocoma paranensis. Both of these species are only known from fossils and are currently considered extinct. Examples have been found in both Argentina and Bolivia, and are similar enough to chinchilla rat skeletons to be placed in the same family, but different enough to be separate species.
Unfortunately, the chances of these species being ‘revived’ through finding living specimens is slim. That’s because they seem to have gone extinct a long time ago. Known fossils of these species range from 9 million years ago to 3.6 million years ago; after that, they seem to have disappeared from the fossil record.
Can You Keep a Chinchilla Rat As a Pet?
Chinchilla rats aren’t kept as pets. There are several reasons why:
- Many chinchilla rat species are endangered. There are laws and regulations against trapping/keeping endangered animals.
- While their fur is thicker than many other animals, it isn’t as thick as that of chinchillas; they therefore aren’t farmed for their fur. Chinchillas first became farmed animals before becoming pets, but this hasn’t happened with chinchilla rats.
- Not all animals take well to being kept in cages. It’s possible that chinchilla rats wouldn’t thrive if kept in captivity (although this isn’t known for sure).
That being said, there is limited evidence that the chinchilla rat may have once been a pet. The bones of the Macchu Picchu arboreal chinchilla rat were buried alongside people, and discounting any potential religious reasons for this practise, they may have been buried alongside their owners. The skull of one entire specimen also had elongated incisors, indicating that it may have been kept as a pet and experienced malocclusion, which is uncommon in the wild. But be that as it may, nobody keeps these animals as pets today.
It’s also stated in some reference books that a Bennett’s chinchilla rat was once kept as a pet, and it supposedly survived for two years and four months. Unfortunately, little is known about this case. What’s clear is that they certainly aren’t kept as common pets.