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

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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.

November 14, 2007 - 7:25am
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