On Friday I gave you this skull to identify:
I think the oddly inflated and positioned auditory bullae make this look like Gary Oldman in his role as Dracula. Because of this characteristically odd feature the specimen was fairly easy to identify. Of course, that supposes that most people have seen the skull of one of these animals before…
Here is the skull in better detail (for future reference):
The front teeth were a good indication that it was a rodent (we’ve talked about that before) and with the big and upward pointing external auditory meatus (better known as ear-hole) it suggested a very big-eared rodent.
With a skull length of about 7cm the number of possible rodents decreased quite rapidly, as most are much too small to have such a big skull, so I wasn’t surprised when Barbara Powell and David Craven hinted that they had the answer. From then on I started getting cryptic answers about warm fur and cold faces as more of you worked out that this is the skull of a Chinchilla, most likely the Long-tailed species Chinchilla lanigera Bennett, 1829.
These cute South American rodents live on the rocky, dry and barren foothills of the Andes. The climate in these regions fluctuates by a huge amount, so they have dense fur to insulate themselves from extremes of temperature. Their environment also means that they can’t be too picky about what they eat, so they’ll give anything a go, from seeds to insects and eggs.
Of course, there are other animals in their harsh habitat that are also looking for food, and for many birds of prey and a variety of mammalian carnivores the Chinchilla would be a perfect meal. Sensitive hearing, good eyesight and group-living all help Chinchillas to spot predators, while their ability to jump and run fast help them to evade capture.
Unfortunately, their soft fur has proven very desirable to humans and a good turn of speed is of limited help when faced with traps and guns. Over-hunting combined with destruction of their habitat for farming has left Chinchillas critically endangered in the wild. It goes to show that being cute sometimes isn’t enough.