CLOSE

(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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
quiz
Begins and Ends: European Cities
iStock
iStock
nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios