Chinchillas are folivorous generalist species (eating lots of varieties of greenery and shrubbery). This may be an adaptation to the sometimes harsh conditions and quickly changing food availability due to unpredictable rainfall in their habitat of the north central region of Chile. They are considered endemic to that area (meaning they exist in the wild NOPLACE ELSE), and even though they are heavily protected, their populations are still recorded as declining. They are an incredibly mysterious animal; quiet, secretive and nocturnal, knowledge on their natural behavior and evolutionary history is scarce. Information about their eating habits had to be gleaned from poop samples collected and analyzed later in a lab.
The study took place over two years of differing rainfall (“wet” and “dry”, respectively), and found that chinchillas in the wild ate a wide variety of plants, however they preferred dried versions of leaves/stems over fresh ones in “cafeteria tests” (where they take a chinchilla, set it in front of a bunch of bins of food, and watch what it chooses). I can see this even in my chinchillas, as most of them do not like to handle any moist food (sometimes they eat it if I hand-feed it to them…because they are spoiled).
The scientists saw evidence of mostly herbs (plants that don’t get woody stems) and shrubs (plants that do grow woody stems), with some evidence of succulent varieties being eaten as well. The majority of their diet consisted of the succulent, pictured above: Puya berteroniana (common name: blue Puya, a terrestrial bromeliad), which is also observed being used as shelter by chinchillas, and Nasella chilensis, a type of rough tussock grass. Since P. berteroniana is composed of up to 80% water, this is most likely the most reliable source of moisture for chinchillas, as they aren’t really observed drinking in their dry mountain habitat. Chinchillas have also been observed eating cacti-fruit, however none was found in this study’s dropping analysis. (N. chilensis pictured below)
Here are a few pictures of a couple of other plants that they found chinchillas ate:
And the Cordia decandra shrub:
Here is the blue Puya in flower. It looks like it is literally from outer space: