Did you know your guinea pig has wild ancestors?

Did you know your guinea pig has wild ancestors?

Your loveable bundle of friendly fur (Cavia porcellus) has an ancient history.

Their wild ancestors (either cavia tschudii, cavia aperea, or cavia fulgida) come from South America where they were domesticated around 5,000 B.C. Ancient Incas kept guinea pigs for food and offered them as sacrifices to the gods. When European colonizers invaded South America in the 16th century, they took guinea pigs back with them on ships across the Atlantic Ocean.

Europeans tried guinea pigs as a food source, but were more fond of them as pets. They bred them to have multicolored coats and extravagant 17th-century Flemish paintings show off these lil cuties as fancy domesticated animals. Queen Elizabeth I even had one!

During that same time, the Europeans exported their new trendy pet to North America. Since the 19th century, these fuzzies were used in medical lab studies, but not often today. That's where the phrase about "being a guinea pig" comes from, indicating that the person would be experimented on, or to be the first to do something with an uncertain outcome.

Are there still wild guinea pigs, you know, in the WILD?

The guinea pig nuzzling in your elbow still has wild cousins in South America, specifically in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. 

For example, the montane guinea pig (Cavia tschudii) lives in the South American Andes mountains and can grow up to 9.7 inches long.  Good thing they have cozy fur because they live at altitudes between 6,600 and 12,500 feet!

A 1999 study found that wild guinea pigs, also called cavies (pronounced kay-vee), displayed more aggressive and less social behavior than your pet, the domestic cavie. However, the domestic cavies were less attentive to their physical environment compared to their wild cousins.  These behavioral shifts are common in other animal species that also underwent domestication.

Another species of wild guinea pig, the Brazilian guinea pig (Cavia aperea) are known as quita k'owi in Bolivia and ulluay in Peru. They grow to about 11 inches long and their coats are dark olive brown on top, with pale yellowish-grey bellies. Very stylish. These cuties are herbivores and active during the day, just like your pets.

While some wild cavies burrow, others take shelter under rocks or dense vegetation. They are social creatures (as you probably know) and feed and groom in groups.  

The wild shiny guinea pig (Cavia fulgida) lives in the Atlantic Forest ecoregion that extends along the Atlantic coast of Brazil and into Paraguay and Argentina. 

Good news! All three of those wild cousins (cavia tschudii, cavia aperea, and cavia fulgida) are of least concern in regards to their extinction risk. Perhaps due to their prolific mating abilities…

Lesser known wild cousins...

The greater guinea pig (Cavia magna) lives in a coastal strip of Brazil and Uruguay. It can grow up to 12.2 inches long and 1.4 pounds. How big is your cavie?

The Santa Catarina's guinea pig (Cavia intermedia) is a rare guinea pig species that is endemic to the small coastal island of Moleques do Sul Archipelago in Brazil. It's habitat is only 9.9 acres which is one of the smallest in the world for a wild mammal.  It is considered critically endangered because the population size of 50 individuals doesn't have strict protection of their environment from human impact. 

Cuys in the Andes.

In his book about cuy, the Spanish word for guinea pig, Edmundo Morales describes the animal's deep cultural significance in the Altiplano Andes region.  The pre-Incan Mochica-Chimu culture sculpted cuy figures, which were found on the Pacific coast of Peru.  Morales details how domesticated cuy is served for special occasions and to important guests.  They are also used in folk medicine practices to diagnose illness.


Would your cavy like to write a letter to their South American cousins? 

Feel free to drop off your note at the Santa Rosa Veterinary Hospital front desk when you bring your guinea pig for a checkup with Dr. Krome before February 2021.  We will translate our favorite one into Spanish and post it on our Santa Rosa Veterinary Hospital Facebook page! As long as Dobby and Noodle approve, of course.

Written by Roxanne Darrow - 10/7/2020