Chinchilla lanigera (today's primarily North American breed)
Chinchilla brevicaudata (the original South American breed)
A rodent native to the Andes mountains of South America. Chinchillas are nocturnal herbivores. They range in size from a bit larger than a mouse to almost the size of a rabbit as adults, typically weighing in between eighteen and thirty ounces. Originally, chinchillas were mostly a yellowish grey colour. Selective breeding over the years has produced a bluish grey as the most common colour today. Chinchillas are reknown for their extremely soft fur and the fact that they take dust baths to clean themselves. Microscopic examination has revealed that a single follicle of a chinchilla is composed of between eighty and one hundred hairs.
In the early 20th century, the chinchilla were hunted close to extinction for their fur. In 1899, Chile shipped over four hundred thirty five thousand chinchilla pelts to the United States and various European nations. In 1923, an American mining engineer named Mathias F. Chapman brought eleven chinchillas to the United States to help preseve the species. These chinchillas were the beginning of chinchilla farming in the States. (Note: Not all chinchillas in the US today are descendants of those eleven.) Chinchillas were raised for their fur, to be kept as pets, and for use as breeding stock.
Chinchillas are close to odorless to the human sense of smell. The little critters also don't carry fleas and similar parasites. Chinchillas like to gnaw, so anyone keeping one (or more) as a pet should keep a piece of wood (Pine is recommended and Cedar and Redwood are both poisonous to chinchillas) in the animal's cage. In fact, without something to gnaw on a chinchilla's front teeth can become overgrown, causing problems for the animal. Chinchillas can live in somewhat small cages if necessary and are typically very clean animals. They do require a special dust, made from lava rocks, to bathe in at least thrice per week (though once per day is ideal). In captivity, chinchillas can be fed pellets and, rarely, pieces of fresh fruits and vegetables. Cabbage, corn, and lettuce can all cause digestive problems which could lead to death.
Chinchillas can begin breeding at six months of age. Their gestation period is one hundred eleven days. A litter usually contains between one and five kits. The kits are born already fully covered in fur, their eyes open, and able to run almost right after birth. Chinchillas can live to about twenty years of age.
Sources of information: http://www.etc-etc.com/chinhusb.htm; http://members.aol.com/sirchin/chininfo.htm.