Chinchillas and viscachas are seven species of small, South American rodents in the family Chinchillidae. Chinchillas have a large head, broad snout, large eyes, rounded ears, and an extremely fine and dense fur. Their forelimbs are short and the paws small, while the hindlegs and feet are larger and relatively powerful, and are used for a leaping style of locomotion, as well as for running and creeping.
Two species of true chinchillas are recognized. The short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla brevicaudata) is native to Andean mountains of Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, while the long-tailed chinchilla (C. laniger) is found in the mountains of Chile. Chinchillas are alpine animals, living in colonies in rock piles and scree, basking at dawn and dusk, and feeding at night on vegetation and occasional arthropods.
Chinchillas have an extremely thick, warm, and soft pelage, considered to be perhaps the finest of any fur. When the commercial implications of this fact were recognized in the late nineteenth century, a relentless exploitation of the wild populations of both species of chinchillas ensued. The over-harvesting of these animals brought both species to the brink of extinction by the early twentieth century.
Fortunately, methods have been developed for breeding and growing chinchillas in captivity, and large numbers are now raised on fur ranches. This development made it possible to stop most of the unregulated exploitation of wild chinchillas. Unfortunately, this happened rather late, and both species are widely extirpated from their original native habitats. The short-tailed chinchilla may, in fact, no longer be found in the wild, and this species is not commonly ranched on fur farms. The long-tailed chinchilla has fared much better, and although
it remains rare in the wild, it is common in captivity, and is often kept as a pet. Attempts are being made to re-stock wild populations of chinchillas, but it is too soon to tell whether these efforts will be successful.
The plains viscacha (Lagostomus maximus) is another species in the Chinchillidae, found in the dry, lowland pampas of Argentina. These animals are much larger than the true chinchillas, and can reach a body length of 24 in (60 cm). Viscachas live in colonies of about 20-50 individuals, which inhabit complexes of underground burrows. The diggings from the burrows are piled in large heaps around the entrances, and the viscachas have a habit of collecting odd materials and placing them on those mounds. These can include natural objects such as bones and vegetation, but also things scavenged from people, such as watches, boots, and other unlikely items.
Viscachas are sometimes hunted as a source of wild meat. More importantly, viscachas have been widely exterminated because their diggings are considered to be a hazard to livestock, which can fall and break a leg if they break through an underground tunnel.
Four species of mountain viscachas (Lagidium spp.) occur in rocky habitats in the Andean tundra. Mountain viscachas live in colonies located in protective crevices, from which they forage during the day. Mountain viscachas are eaten by local people, and their fur is used in clothing. Sometimes the hair is removed from the skin of trapped animals, and used to weave an indigenous Andean cloth.
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