Rare Andean rodent rediscovered high in Chile’s Atacama
Two new colonies of the short-tailed chinchilla have been discovered in northern Chile, giving hope to the recovery of a species once thought to be extinct.
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Although it faces extinction in the wild, the Chinchilla is a relatively common household pet. Photo: Scott Butner
Only as recently as 2008 was the International Union for Conservation of Nature able remove the short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla chinchilla) from the “Locally Extinct” species list and label it instead as “Critically Endangered.”
Now, hopes are being kindled that the chinchilla may continue its recovery, with the discovery of two new colonies of the rare species in the Nevado Tres Cruces National Park by Chilean researchers from the Universidad de Tarapacá (UTA), effectively doubling the number of documented colonies in the wild.
The chinchilla search was led by UTA’s Pablo Valladares - with the support of the National Forestry Corporation of Chile (CONAF) - using remote motion-sensitive camera traps to capture images of the crepuscular rodents.
What is a chinchilla?
The chinchilla a bit bigger than the ground squirrel, with large ears that it uses to regulate its body temperature.
Its natural habitat is high among the Andean mountains - colonies have been found up to 15,000 feet (4,270 mt) - and was originally found in the Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Argentina.
Perhaps its most distinctive feature is its lush fur, which made it a prized commodity among the indigenous Chincha people of the Andes, who valued it so much they named the animal after themselves - chinchilla literally means “little Chinca.”
The road to extinction
Starting in the 16th Century, Spanish settlers began large-scale hunting of the chinchilla for its soft fur. Beginning in 1828, they began commercial exports of the fur, which peaked in intensity around the turn of the century.
By 1917, so few chinchillas remained in the wild that exports dropped to almost nothing. The Andean rodent continued its decline, reaching its lowest point between 1953 and 1975, a year when no sightings were recorded, and the chinchilla was declared extinct in the wild.
However, in 1924, a handful of the two species of wild chinchilla, both the short and long-tailed animals, were taken to the United States to begin the practice of chinchilla breeding. Domestic varieties of the chinchilla are now gaining popularity as exotic pets.
What next for the Chinchilla?
More than just giving hope to the recovery of the chinchilla, the UTA findings have demonstrated the effectiveness of using camera traps to gather information on rare, crepuscular and nocturnal animals around the world.
Meanwhile, Valladares and his team will continue their work, extending further into regions where chinchillas have had their historic habitat. Additional information gathered on the little understood chinchilla will be essential in formulating future conservation policy.