The Guinea Pig family
Guinea pigs are rodents belonging to the family ‘Caviidae’. All species in this family have 20 teeth and four digits on each front feet and three digits on each back feet.
Today this family consists of three genera and over 20 species. They are only naturally found in the South American continent, but are kept as pets in Australia and many other countries.
Subfamily Caviinae: Guinea pigs (cavies)
Galea flavidens – Brandt’s Yellow-toothed Cavy
- Galea monasteriensis – Muenster Yellow-toothed Cavy
- Galea musteloides – Common Yellow-toothed Cavy
- Galea spixii – Spix’s Yellow-toothed Cavy – as a close relative of the guinea pig, this species has an average length of only 22.5 – 23.5cm and an average weight of just 375 – 405g.
The mara is a large relative of the guinea pig. The Patagonian mara (Dolichotis patagonum), and the Chacoan mara (Dolichotis salinicola) live in the Patagonian steppes of Argentina and other areas of South America. They are the fourth largest rodent in the world (after capybaras, beavers, and porcupines) reaching about 45cm in height and up to 11kgs. They can either walk or hop in a rabbit type fashion.
The capybara is the largest living rodent in the world, gowing up to 130cm long and sometimes reaching 65kg!. In local language their name means ‘master of the grasses’. Capybaras have heavy, barrel-shaped bodies and short heads. They are social animals living in groups of 10 to 30, and like guinea pigs are very vocal. They communicate in a range of purrs, barks, whistles, squeals and grunts. They are water lovers, even being able to sleep partially submerged!
Rock cavies, or Mocos, live only in Brazil. Little is known about these cavies. They appear to resemble their guinea pig cousins with long bodies close to the ground. They often rarely obtain the 1kg weight. They prefer to live in rocky outcrops and are excellent rock climbers. They are herbivores and prefer leaves of specific plants.
Our beloved domestic guinea pig – Cavia porcellus
It seems that domestication of the guinea pig started in 5000 BCE in modern day Peru. The Incas regarded the guinea pigs (traditionally named Cuy) as a sacred species, but they were also fond of eating them.
The oldest reference of the guinea pig as a food source dates back to 900 BCE. Once Europeans colonised America guinea pigs made their way to Europe as pets. The modern day guinea pig (cavy) was first recorded there in 1758. Apparently Queen Elizabeth I had one as a pet!
In South America wild cavies inhabit rocky areas, savannas, forest edges, and swamps from Columbia and Venezuela southward to Brazil and northern Argentina. They live in groups of up to about 10 individuals and dwell in burrows that are dug by themselves or by other animals. They are most active at night when they forage for a wide variety of plant materials.
There are over 11 recognised breeds of guinea pigs including the Abyssinian, Peruvian, Rex, Silky and White-Crested.