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In 2020, on a rocky hillside overlooking the huge swell of the Pacific Ocean close to the Chilean port metropolis of Antofagasta, a neighborhood man out strolling his canine stumbled upon the sun-bleached cranium of a small mammal. Curious, he pocketed it and introduced it to the eye of researchers Alejandro Peñaloza and Jaime Jiménez. The scientists have been shocked. The cranium belonged to a long-tailed chinchilla, a species sometimes discovered deep throughout the Chilean Andes Mountains. So far as scientists knew, chinchillas had by no means inhabited the coast.
“I couldn’t imagine it at first,” says Jiménez, a researcher on the College of North Texas who has studied chinchilla ecology for over 30 years. “There have been no previous data of chinchillas within the space, and by no means on the coast, so it simply didn’t make any sense.”
The excited researchers dug into the thriller. They rapidly found a plethora of pint-sized paw prints within the sand and rodent scat strewn among the many boulders, however what they actually needed was photographic proof. The researchers baited digicam traps with apple slices and, to their delight, captured dozens of photographs of the rodents. It was solely when the scientists checked the cameras that they realized simply how shut they’d come to seeing the chinchillas—one picture was snapped simply 11 minutes after they’d left.
The footage exhibits that the coastal chinchillas are strikingly completely different from their Andean counterparts. Because the scientists element in a latest report, whereas the mountain chinchillas are bigger with thick fur and rounded ears, the coastal chinchillas have smaller our bodies, sleeker fur, and unusually elongated rabbit-like ears. Other than their peculiar seems, the coastal chinchillas have been additionally captured shifting about within the daytime—a habits by no means earlier than seen in wild chinchillas.
“These animals are often utterly nocturnal, so it could be an indication of fewer predators or an adaptation to their surroundings,” says Jiménez.
The revelation that long-tailed chinchillas are inhabiting the coast is difficult scientists’ long-held assumptions about how these animals dwell. For one factor, says Fabian Jaksik, a member of the Chilean Academy of Sciences who was indirectly concerned within the analysis, the discover “is critical as a result of it’s the northernmost document of the long-tailed chinchilla in Chile ever, even traditionally talking.”
The surroundings the place the coastal chinchillas reside can also be a world aside from the tough and frigid deserts of the Andes. Sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean, life prospers alongside the coastal margin due to the proximity of the ocean and its moderating impact on each day temperatures. A thick fog generally known as the camanchaca often rolls in on morning easterly winds and nourishes the area’s crops.
For researchers striving to be taught extra about these novel animals, nonetheless, even their palate is puzzling.
Whereas the Andean chinchillas primarily eat grass, scientists aren’t fairly certain what the coastal chinchillas eat. The hillsides they inhabit are absent of grasses however wealthy in flora that’s both extremely poisonous or studded with spines and thorns. “It may very well be that they’re consuming one thing utterly new or nibbling on a little bit of every thing and in some way digesting and surviving the toxins,” says Jiménez. “However that is only a speculation.”
With so many variations in look, habits, and ecology, scientists aren’t fairly certain what to make of those chinchillas. “The coastal chinchillas may be a subspecies or possibly even a brand new species,” says Jiménez. “We’ll solely have the ability to reply these questions after we’ve understood these animals and their lives higher.”
Past their enigmatic ecology, the coastal chinchillas are elevating wider questions in regards to the species’ future.
Whereas Andean long-tailed chinchillas are nonetheless recovering from centuries of overhunting and face ongoing threats from habitat destruction for mining, the coastal chinchillas appear to be thriving. If they’re the identical species, the brand new inhabitants suggests long-tailed chinchillas are extra ample than beforehand thought, providing hope for his or her survival within the wild.
“That is in all probability a inhabitants that escaped overhunting because of its isolation,” says Peñaloza. “So there could also be heaps extra on the market ready to be discovered.”