Chinchillas are known for lots of things, among them their enormous whiskers. But why are a chinchilla’s whiskers so long, and what do they do?
Why do chinchillas have such long whiskers? Long whiskers compensate for a chinchilla’s poor eyesight. They help it navigate like a blind person uses a cane. This is essential as chinchillas spend lots of time in burrows, where their eyesight is even worse. Whiskers also play a social role, as the chinchilla with the bigger whiskers is typically dominant. Chinchillas use their whiskers by twitching them and spreading them out, so that they collectively cover a larger area.
The guide below first explores what whiskers are and how they work, which is essential for understanding what chinchillas use them for. We’ll then look at how whiskers help a chinchilla survive in the wild or thrive as a pet, before detailing precisely how chinchillas use their whiskers (twitching, spreading them out, and so on).
Do Chinchillas Have Whiskers?
Chinchillas do have whiskers, just like most small furry animals do. They’re big, immediately obvious, and sit on either side of your chinchilla’s mouth. But what are they for, how long should they be, and how are they special?
What Are Whiskers?
In some ways, whiskers are like normal hairs. But in other ways, they aren’t.
In their basic construction, whiskers are made of keratin, just like other hairs. Keratin is a tough substance: a kind of fibrous protein that makes up the structure of lots of things from hair to nails, feathers, horns, hooves and skin. It forms layers, each of which overlaps, giving whatever structure it’s a part of strength. The structure of keratin in a whisker is just so to give it slightly more strength and stiffness compared to the average hair.
Another key difference is the base of each hair. All hairs spring from follicles, and follicles contain both blood vessels and nerves. That’s why you can feel when you stroke or tug on a hair.
Whiskers are different, though, because they grow from special follicles that have small capsules of blood in them. These are called ‘blood sinuses’, and they contain lots and lots of sensory nerves. As such, when the whisker touches something, the feeling of the hair being touched, tugged or moved is magnified.
How Long Are a Chinchilla’s Whiskers?
So, we know they’re long—but how long should a chinchilla’s whiskers be? The length of a chinchilla’s whiskers is roughly related to its overall size. While they can be longer or shorter, a chinchilla’s whiskers tend to be around 1/3 of the overall length of its body (not including its tail).
There will always be some whiskers that are shorter than this. That’s because whiskers fall out occasionally, not because of any wider health issue, but because all hairs fall out eventually. These are then replaced by new ones that gradually grow to their full length. As such, your chinchilla’s whiskers won’t all be the same length but a range of lengths.
What they really need to be is more than the width of your chinchilla’s body. That’s because a core functionality of a whisker is to tell the chinchilla if a gap is big enough to fit through. If the whisker is too small, it won’t give the chinchilla an accurate measurement. As such, your chinchilla’s whiskers will be much wider than its body.
What Is Special About The Whiskers of Chinchillas?
Chinchilla whiskers aren’t significantly different from those of other animals. They work in the same way, both anatomically and in their use. What you could say, though, is that chinchillas rely far more on their whiskers than most other pets.
Why Do Chinchillas Have Such Long Whiskers?
So, chinchillas use their whiskers to sense touch like other animals do. But why do a chinchilla’s whiskers have to be so incredibly long?
Chinchillas Need Whiskers to Compensate for Bad Eyesight
The first reason why chinchillas have such long whiskers is that their eyesight is poor.
Chinchillas have an excellent sense of hearing, hence their big, rounded ears. They also have a good sense of smell—far better than our own—that they use to sense predators, recognize other chinchillas and figure out where they are.
You might assume from a chinchilla’s eyes that its eyesight is quite good, too. Its eyes are large and poke out a little from their sockets, as if to get a better view. But a chinchilla’s eyesight is actually quite poor, so it has to make up for that with its other senses. It makes the most of its sense of touch by having lots of long whiskers that, collectively, cover a large area. This helps them figure out where they’re going, almost like a blind person’s cane.
Chinchillas Need Whiskers to Live in Burrows
Another reason chinchillas need long whiskers is that they spend much of their lives underground, where even if they had good eyesight, they wouldn’t see anything anyway.
Chinchillas don’t make burrows for themselves. You can tell from their tiny, delicate paws, which you could almost call hairy hands, as that’s what they look like. They aren’t designed for digging! Instead, they make use of burrows that other animals have made, or find natural cracks, holes and dens in rock formations.
There will be lots of chinchillas living in one of these burrows. It’s unusual for chinchillas to live alone; they live in herds, composed of lots of family units. These family units live together: mother, father and kits in a burrow. With their poor eyesight and little light, they need an easy way to navigate, and whiskers provide it. Otherwise they would constantly be bumping into each other and the walls of the burrow.
Another way whiskers help chinchillas navigate their burrows is by approximating the width of your chinchilla’s body. Let’s say a chinchilla wants to get through a gap to access somewhere deeper in the burrow. Well, if it pokes its head into the gap but feels wall close by on both sides, it can tell—without being able to see—that the gap is too narrow for it to fit through. This stops it getting stuck and potentially even dying underground.
Chinchillas Need Whiskers to Be Social
Whiskers have uses besides helping your chinchilla get around. They form a key part of the chinchilla’s social life.
The first way they do is that chinchillas infer how big they are from how big their whiskers are. That might sound odd, but it’s true. As a rule a chinchilla with bigger whiskers than another will feel like it can be dominant over another. Believe it or not but that applies even if the chinchilla with bigger whiskers is much smaller overall than the other. They therefore help a chinchilla group maintain its social balance.
The second way is that chinchillas will chew each other’s whiskers when they fight. The dominant chinchilla will gnaw and gnaw at the other’s whiskers, until all that’s left are stubs. If your chinchilla does this to its cage mate, you should separate them as soon as possible, as it’s a sure sign that their fighting is about to get serious.
How Do Chinchillas Use Their Whiskers?
If you’ve ever watched your chinchilla move about—or any other pet for that matter—you’ll see that its whiskers don’t just stay still. They twitch, move about, spread out or gather themselves in. They’re constantly moving, almost like they’re tiny limbs. This movement might look random or uncontrolled, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Why Are My Chinchilla’s Whiskers Twitching?
Whisker twitching is a kind of reflex, and it’s a reflex with a very important purpose.
Again, we can go back to the analogy of the visually impaired person’s cane. While it’s possible to walk with the cane directly in front of you, most people swing it from side to side in a sweeping pattern. The point is that the cane might touch something that it wouldn’t have otherwise if it stayed still; it’s checking, sweeping like a radar for oncoming people and things. In the same way, your chinchilla’s whiskers twitch because it increases the chance that they’ll bump into something your chinchilla can’t see.
As such, you’re likely to see your chinchilla’s whiskers twitching when your pet is active. When it’s moving around, jumping from platform to platform, and especially when it’s exploring new places, your chinchilla’s whiskers will twitch like mad.
Why Are My Chinchilla’s Whiskers Spreading Out?
In between twitches, you might also notice your chinchilla spreading its whiskers as wide as it can. It does so occasionally, especially if it hears a loud noise, after it jumps, or if it otherwise gets surprised. But why?
The reason is that your pet is shocked, nervous or frightened. It extends its whiskers as far as it can to search for potential threats that it can’t see. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a chinchilla living in a burrow with your group; you’ve been fighting with another chinchilla, and you suddenly hear it making very threatening noises towards you.
Well, you can hear it, but you can’t see it. So how do you know which direction it’s coming from? What it’s going to do? The answer is that you spread your whiskers out as far as they’ll go. If it lunges at you, at least from the front, you’ll feel it coming perhaps before you see it. You’ll have more time to react and a better chance of successfully standing your ground.
The same applies when you’re outside foraging at night. You can’t see a thing as the moon isn’t out, and even though you can smell predators coming, sometimes the wind isn’t blowing in the right direction for you to do so. You hear a noise and stand to alert, extending your whiskers again so that if a predator tries to catch you, you have slightly more time to leap out of the way. Of course, they aren’t a complete protection. It’s still likely that if a fox or bird of prey attacks, you’ll be killed and eaten. But every little helps.