Scientists have discovered new colonies of Critically Endangered short-tailed chinchilla in Chile. Photo by: Martin Espinosa.
The short-tailed chinchilla (Chinchilla chinchilla) once inhabited a range including the mountainous regions of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, but today the species survives in only a handful of areas in northern Chile and Argentina. Worse still, evidence of the Argentinean populations is restricted to remains discovered in the droppings of their natural predators. But, since 2011, Pablo Valladares from the University of Tarapaca in conjunction with the National Forestry Corporation of Chile (CONAF) has been searching Tres Cruces National Park for previously undocumented populations, and it has finally paid off: Valladares and colleagues discovered two new colonies with remote camera traps.
Prized for its ultra-soft fur, the short-tailed chinchilla has undergone an exponential decline since Spanish settlers began large-scale harvesting operations. Though they were hunted by the Inca and other local people in pre-Columbian times, commercial export began in 1828 and peaked in intensity between 1885 and 1910, with an average export rate of a quarter million pelts per year. But by 1917, due to increasing overexploitation, exports dropped off to almost nothing.
In 1924, a total of eleven short and long-tailed chinchillas (Chinchilla lanigera) were captured from their high desert habitat and shipped live to California, where the now worldwide practice of chinchilla farming was first developed. Though the fur of their hybrid ancestors continues to be sold across the world, and chinchillas have gained popularity as exotic pets, both species are extremely rare in the wild. No sightings occurred between 1953 and 1975, and only as recently as 2008 did the IUCN consider there to be sufficient data to update their status from Locally Extinct to Critically Endangered.
The discovery of the two new small colonies of short-tailed chinchilla, published in the Argentinean journal Neotropical Mammalogy, doubles the known locales where Chinchilla colonies exist, and is also the southernmost example of short-tailed chinchilla populations found in recent times. To locate them, the team employed motion-sensitive camera traps in a rocky ravine near a creek bed and a collection of small cave formations—two staples of short-tailed chinchilla habitat. As their results show, employing camera traps can be very effective, and has aided ecologists in capturing images of other rare and nocturnal animals across the globe.
The team’s data will be used to help determine future conservation policy, and is a sign of hope for similar projects in other parts of the chinchilla’s historical range.
CITATION: F.P. Valladares, M. Espinosa, M. Torres, E. Diaz, N. Zeller, J. De la Rive, M. Grimberg, A. Spotorno. New record of Chinchilla chinchilla (Rodentia, Chinchillidae) from the Atacama region, Chile. Implications for conservation. Mastozoología Neotropical. Volume 19. Number 1. 2012.
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