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(Way More Than) Everything You Wanted To Know About Guinea Pigs

Let's get this straight. They're not pigs. They're rodents. And they're not from Guinea, either, so the name is just downright misleading. Cavies (cavia porcellus), also known as guinea pigs, are tame, become accustomed to handling, and rarely bite, making them not only ideal pets but ideal lab animals. And in some cases, a crunchy snack or homeopathic diagnostic tool—especially when the pig is drunk. Here's some delicious peeg trivia the next time you need to impress the boss or in-laws. [Photo courtesy of Pets World.]

They Used to be HUMONGOUS

Eight million years ago, the ancestor of the guinea pig was the buffalo-sized 1,545-pound rodent Phoberomys pattersoni. It lived a semi-aquatic life in the ancient Orinoco delta in northern Venezuela, frolicking amongst lion-sized marsupial cats and three meter long crocodiles.

High-Profile Owners

Queen Elizabeth I is purported to have owned a guinea pig, starting the trend of keeping guinea pigs as a pet. Theodore Roosevelt's family raised guinea pigs. In letters, he complained about being forced to babysit them.

Crepuscular!

Guinea pigs are crepuscular—mostly active during twilight hours. This is due to their domestication; subdued indoor lighting has led them to prefer neither direct sunlight nor total darkness.

Yum Yum Yum Guinea Pig in My Tum

Once only consumed by ancient royalty and elite or reserved for ceremonial meals, a dish of guinea pig, or Cuy, has gradually become common in Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and Bolivian diet. The guinea pig, native to South America, has meat that is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol, similar to rabbit or the dark meat on chicken.

There isn't much space to raise cattle in the mountains, so modern day Andean Indians and Peruvians often raise guinea pigs as a food or income source. They will keep eight to fifteen guinea pigs at a time for food, although some families may have as many as forty or fifty running amok in their home. With the exception of the occasional egg, guinea pig meat is often the only source of animal protein available to Andean Indians.

During World War II, the government encouraged Italian peasants to raise guinea pigs to supplement their meat rations, but this campaign did not go over very well.

A recipe for cooking guinea pig can be found here, but be warned that you may need to buy and cook three or four at a time in order to feel full. Also, be warned: guinea pig meat is illegal in several places, including California.

Avast, That Peeg Thar has Scurvy

Like humans, guinea pigs are one of the few mammals that cannot make or store their own Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Because guinea pigs do not have L-gulonolactone oxidase (GULO), an enzyme that produces Vitamin C, guinea pigs have to get all of their vitamin C from food or "“ again,like humans "“ they will die from scurvy. The only other known animals that cannot synthesize their own Vitamin C are primates, fruit eating bats, and a specific species of bird and trout, respectively.

When scientists study the effect of Vitamin C on humans, they almost always use guinea pigs as the test animal. Vitamin C overdose has been correlated to osteoarthritis, and guinea pigs develop knee arthritis in a manner similar to humans.

sooty3.jpgMales Got Stamina

Male guinea pigs can mate with as many as forty guinea pigs, although the common ration is one male to seven females. In 2000, BBC reported on Sooty, a Welsh guinea pig who knocked up 24 females over the course of 2 days and fathered 42 babies. [Photo credit.]

Cavies as Ceremonial Mediums and X-ray Machines

The guinea pig was regarded as an important divination tool. Incan haruspices would open the animals with their fingernails and inspect the entrails to prognosticate. Even to this day, guinea pigs are sometimes used in rural areas as sacrificial offerings or for fortune telling.

In addition, curanderos, South American folk healers, use guinea pigs as a diagnostic and healing tool. A live guinea pig is rubbed over the body of the sick patient, and the pig's reaction is used to gauge the illness. If the pig dies during this rubbing procedure, it is generally considered a bad sign. Afterwards, some curanderos will split open the guinea pig to examine its internal organs and arrive at a diagnosis, or kill the guinea pig in order to destroy the disease. Modern day takes on this practice include feeding the guinea pig beer (making the guinea pig's healing powers more potent) and adorning it with ribbons before giving the patient a rub down. The guinea pig is then set free, taking the disease with it.

High Maintenance Nakedness

hairlessGP.jpgA new type of guinea pig, the Baldwin and Skinny Pig breeds, are almost or completely hairless. Originally bred for dermatological laboratory research and chemical testing, these hypoallergenic guinea pigs have a weaker immune system and resemble baby hippos. They are very easily sunburned, sensitive to the cold, and their delicate rumps require frequent moisturizing with lotion. [Photo credit.]

Marissa Minna Lee is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. Her last story was about unexpected uses for animal dung.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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