Chinchilla & Degu Origins
Chinchillas originate from high altitudes in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Peru in South America. The Inca nobility wore chinchilla fur and with the coming of the Spanish invaders and other Europeans, these animals were hunted almost to extinction.
Chinchillas were named after the native Chincha Indians who used to eat them and use their fur. Chinchilla fur is amongst the most rare and expensive in the world. It takes 100 pelts to make a coat. In the 19th century, demand from the European and American markets drove the chinchilla population almost to the brink of extinction.
Before the alarmed governments of Chile, Bolivia, Peru & Argentina imposed a ban on their hunting, an estimated 21 million had been killed for their fur. Even with this ban, it has been a severe challenge for the wild chinchilla to repopulate these areas as they produce only one or two babies per litter with a gestation period of 111 days.
Range of Chinchilla lanigera (black) and Chinchilla brevicaudata (green)
Save the Wild Chinchillas is a conservation organisation working to preserve the chinchillas wild habitat. Their site contains useful information about the diet of the wild chinchilla and what can be done to protect them in the wild.
The pet chinchillas we have today owe their origins to a mining engineer named Mathias F Chapman who, in 1923, succeeded in bringing 11 live chinchillas to America by bringing them down the mountains slowly enough to allow them to acclimatise. The ship to California also carried ice to keep the chinchillas cool. One female even gave birth whilst on board.
Ranges according to altitude.
Origins of the Degu
Originating in Chile, degus were originally imported for laboratory experiments on diabetes in the 1950s because they suffer from an inability to process sugar. Considered a pest in their land of origin, they have become popular, if unusual, pets in Europe and America. Their closest relative is the guinea pig although they bear a visual resemblance to rodents and have been mistakenly called Chilean Squirrels.
They certainly gnaw like rodents but their diet is more akin to that of the chinchilla or guinea pig, high in fibre and including the consumption of ‘night droppings’
Around 25 – 30 cm, domestic degues are smaller than their wild cousins that measure around 40cm. This is probably due to inbreeding as most domestic degus originate from a small stock of only 10 imported originally. They are vocal creatures living around 5 years in captivity