Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Year of the Dragon: The "Dragon Cats"

Chinchilla - Chinchilla lanigera - Long-tailed Chinchilla
(Photo by StefanKoeder)

An unfortunate consequence of having the Chinese zodiac associated with animals is that there are bound to be plenty of superstitious people who get a pet associated with that particular year, only to lose interest soon enough. Despite campaigns to encourage responsible pet ownership, the Year of the Rabbit was not a good one for plenty of pet bunnies, dumped once the novelty wore off. In Singapore, most exotic reptiles are (thankfully?) banned as pets, so we won't get a spike in cases of chameleons, iguanas or bearded dragons being released in our parks. However, there is the likelihood that by the end of the Year of the Dragon, we may see a rise in sales of another animal, and a corresponding spike in cases of abandonment and neglect. One thing's for certain, the chinchilla actually has very little to do with dragons.

The chinchilla is known in Chinese as 龙猫 ('dragon cat'), although I honestly have no idea how it got such a name. After all, it is a rodent, not a felid, and unlike say, the Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus), doesn't have a long tradition of being associated with the mythical dragons of east Asian cultures. I guess it was all a smart marketing strategy. Edit: Albertonykus from Raptormaniacs has reminded me that the title character in the Japanese anime My Neighbor Totoro is called the "dragon cat" in Chinese translations. I suppose calling chinchillas "dragon cats" is meant to highlight their resemblance to this cartoon character.

(Image from Electric Sheep)

Chinchilla - Chinchilla lanigera - Long-tailed Chinchilla
(Photo by StefanKoeder)

In any case, there are actually 2 species of chinchilla in the wild, the long-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera), and the short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla chinchilla). The chinchillas currently being bred in captivity for the fur and pet trade are commonly considered to consist of long-tailed chinchillas, although there may also be hybrids between the 2 species.

Chinchillas are native to the barren rocky crags of the Andes in South America, from Chile and Argentina to parts of Peru and Bolivia. Here, in the high windswept mountains, between 3,000 and 5,000 metres above sea level, the chinchillas have adapted to survive in this cold and arid place. Living in small colonies of up to 100 individuals, they are both nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), foraging for whatever available vegetation there is, digging burrows and tunnels to hide from predators such as birds of prey, snakes, foxes, and cats.

zooterapia 017
(Photo by Poloos FLeiss ● ●)

To survive the cold, chinchillas have evolved soft and thick fur to help provide insulation, with an average of 60 hairs sprouting from each hair follicle. This fur also helps provide some degree of protection from predators, as any attempt to snatch a fleeing chinchilla may end with a mouthful of fur and a disappointed hunter. Unfortunately, it is this luxuriant fur that has been the chinchillas' downfall. Hunted for fur by the Incas and other native civilisations in the Andes, it was only in the 18th century that chinchillas began to experience heavy exploitation for western markets. In 1899, 500,000 chinchilla pelts were exported from Chile alone. Chinchillas soon became one of the most valuable in the fur industry, with coats made from wild chinchilla pelts costing US$100,000 each! With increasing rarity as chinchilla populations were decimated, the price of furs rose, and the hunting continued because it was so profitable. To make things worse, because of their small size, many individual chinchillas are needed to create a garment. For instance, it has been quoted that about 150 chinchilla pelts are required to make a single full-length coat.

Chinchilla pelts;
(Photo by

this is what a $45,000 coat looks like
Chinchilla fur coat;
(Photo by Tony Di Lorenzo)

Today, wild chinchillas are fully protected, although some poaching for fur continues. Both the long-tailed and short-tailed chinchillas are considered Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List, and are now restricted to remote areas in the mountains of Chile, having been extirpated from other former range states like Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. Habitat destruction from overgrazing by livestock is another major threat.

Chinchillas still contribute to the fur trade, although most of it these days comes from captive-bred animals. Indeed, it was the establishment of viable populations in captivity to sustain the demand for fur that not only helped prevent further large-scale hunting of wild chinchilla, but also led to chinchillas eventually appearing as subjects for laboratory research, and in the pet trade as well.

(Photo by compozergrl)

While chinchillas are typically silvery-grey, there are now a few different colour varieties, the result of selective breeding. Still, all chinchillas still retain the same size, shape, and fur length, and have not undergone extreme breeding for traits like those seen in other pet rodents, such as hamsters, guinea pigs, or rats.

White and black colour mutations of captive chinchilla;
(Photo by wisely-chosen)

The chinchillas have close relatives, known as mountain viscachas (Lagidium spp.), which look a lot like rabbits with long tails. 4 species live in the Andes, just like the chinchillas, from Peru and Bolivia to Chile and Argentina, and have similar habits.

Northern Viscacha (Lagidium peruanum)
Northern viscacha (Lagidium peruanum);
(Photo by JeDi58)

Viscacha (Lagidium viscacia Molina)
Southern viscacha (Lagidium viscacia);
(Photo by codiferous)

One more species, the plains viscacha (Lagostomus maximus), lives on the pampas.

Lagostomus maximus
(Photo by Sanchez Andreas)

There are many South American rodents with interesting, even endearing names. Thanks to zoos, many people have heard of the semi-aquatic capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) and coypu (Myocastor coypu) of the swamps and wetlands, or the hare-like mara (Dolichotis patagonum) of Patagonia, while the degu (Octodon degus) is another South American rodent that is becoming popular as an exotic pet. The agoutis (Dasyprocta spp.), acouchis (Myoprocta spp.), pacas (Cuniculus spp.) and pacarana (Dinomys branickii) are forest denizens, while the tuco-tucos (Ctenomys spp.) are burrowers that inhabit the pampas.

(Photo by lorentey)

Coypus: 7 of 10
(Photo by lacitadelle)

Mara (Dolichotis patagonum)
Patagonian mara;
(Photo by Cláudio Timm)

Degu Funny
(Photo by *stepko*)

Rodentia - Dasyprocta Punctata (Guatusa)
Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata);
(Photo by Ignacio Zamora)

Zwergaguti / Green Acouchy (Myoprocta pratti)
Green acouchi (Myoprocta pratti);
(Photo by Sexecutioner)

Lowland paca (Cuniculus paca);
(Photo by Official San Diego Zoo)

Pacarana  wonderful animal  rare in museums,very rare in zoos
(Photo by Bruce Aleksander & Dennis Milam)

Say Cheese!
Tiny tuco-tuco (Ctenomys minutus);
(Photo by Kitty & Kal-El)

All these are caviomorph rodents, of which the domestic cavy or guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) is the most famous representative. Indeed, while there are some caviomorph rodents that have managed to colonise North America and the islands of the Caribbean, South America is their stronghold.

Guinea pig Lisa
Guinea pig;
(Photo by Tereza Čechová)

Another family of South American caviomorph rodents, the Abrocomidae, goes by the common name of chinchilla rat. Indeed, the members of this family, which belong to 2 genera (Abrocoma and Cuscomys), look like a mixture of chinchilla and rat.

Bennett's Chinchilla-Rat
Bennett's chinchilla rat (Abrocoma bennettii);
(Photo by Podoces)

Chinchillas are definitely very cute, but are high-maintenance, and require more care and attention compared to hamsters or mice. For instance, they have specific dietary requirements, and won't do well on a menu of nothing but hamster food. Staying true to their origins from some of the driest places on the planet, they hate to get wet, but need to take regular baths in sand. And given that their fur traps heat so well, they are certainly at risk of overheating in our tropical weather. Not to mention that they are very active, require lots of space, and like all other rodents, need to gnaw frequently in order to keep their incisors at the right length. And to top it all off, chinchillas are long-lived for rodents, and can be part of a household for 15 years or even more. Owning one and providing adequate care is certainly a heavy long-term responsibility.

(Photo by toydogs)

There is the possibility that with the arrival of the Year of the Dragon, there will be more impulse purchases of pet chinchillas. Even though chinchillas are expensive, it is almost guaranteed that some of these will end up in homes not equipped to provide them with care required.

In the hope of preventing a repeat of the horrific abuse and neglect that many rabbits suffered, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has put out a reminder on responsible pet ownership, and to avoid buying chinchillas just because of some tenuous connection with dragons.

Hopefully, the next year or so will be kind to these oddly-named 'dragon cats'.