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The Origin of Guinea Pigs

Updated on May 28, 2018
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The origin of its name

The question on how guinea pigs got their name is a bit puzzling and there is still a lot of debate about this. The rodent does not come from Guinea and it is certainly not a miniature pig, despite having the scientific name cavia porcellus, meaning a pig-lookalike cavy. This adoring animal is a native of South America and can still be found there in the grasslands and mountains of Peru, Uruguay and Argentina.

There are several theories as to how the word 'guinea' came into use. In Britain, 'guinea' was once a term for anything foreign but if this is the case, why are there not guinea lions, lemurs and leopards? Pretty odd when you ponder about it, however, when guinea pigs were first introduced to the British Isles around the 16th century they were very rare and maybe 21 shillings (guinea) was the normal fixed priced for one of these rodents to buy. Anything priced in guineas was usually regarded as valuable and guinea pigs would certainly have had a value which was rare.

Guinea pigs were brought to Europe before it was introduced to the British Isles in the 16th century from Dutch Guiana (Dutch colony in Surinam). So could guinea pig be a corruption of 'Guiana'? Maybe, just maybe that could be the connection, but in Europe, the word 'guinea' has no connection whatsoever with the rodent. The term used in many European countries translates into 'sea pig' and in Russia they are called Moskaya svinka meaning a sea pig. Basically, this term may be derived from the fact that sailors brought them back to Europe.

Italy also has a nice name for guinea pigs and that brings it to the last theory of the guinea derivation. The Italian name is porcellino da India which means a little pig of India. So perhaps these rodents arrived in England and Italy from the Dutch East Indies, which includes New Guinea, in ships that had travelled across the Pacific Ocean from South America to collect cargoes in the East Indies. As a matter of fact, both the English and the Dutch were trading or growing their interests in South America at around the 16th century. As the Dutch, English and Italians were all engaged in the spice trade, which was then established in the East Indies, so perhaps the word 'guinea' is really derived from New Guinea after all. But the question still remains open for many experts to do further research.

For the word 'pig', it does not require much thought to deduce how the name came to be used. Guinea pigs have short necks with long bodies which are carried low to the ground upon short legs. They squeak most of the time like mice and root around, and also constantly munching on foods and objects, in fact they are rather like pigs. In more serious circles guinea pigs are usually referred to as 'Cavies'. This name is shorthand for the Latin word caviidea which was used to describe animals with short tails or no tails.

Domesticated Guinea Pig (Cavia Porcellus)

commons.wikimedia.org
commons.wikimedia.org | Source

The wild guinea pig is slightly smaller that the domesticated one and is very much more alert and ready to flee for its life. This is because it has to work harder for its living and flight is its best known defence, so Mother Nature has decided, by the process of natural selection, that this leaner model has a better chance of survival in the wild.

In South America, where the guinea pig has long been a culinary delicacy, domestic guinea pigs are likely to be kept for food. By the process of fattening them up with kitchen scraps of vegetables and wheat products and breeding for the pot, guinea pigs have become larger animals. One of Pizzaro's men, during the conquest of Peru, wrote: 'The Indians of Peru raise large quantities of small white mammals, or of various colours, resembling, on a smaller scale, the rabbit which they call "Cuijes". They eat or sacrifice them to their gods.'

Although guinea pigs are not eaten in most of the other countries in which they are now living in, they have been kept as pets for a very long time, and this, together with the growing interest in showing them, has resulted in larger guinea pigs all around, for most people prefer them to be chunky.

Teeth and Digestive System

The guinea pig's natural habitat is the grasslands and plains that supply the herbivorous diet it requires. Guinea pigs are among a minority of animals, also human beings, that must obtain their vitamin C by eating vegetable matter. Grass is not only rich in vitamin C but it is also very fibrous, which is another essential requirement for the rodent's digestive system. They also require most of the B vitamins and minerals that humans require and in the wild they get these especially from the seeds and grains of grasses.

The warm and dry climate of South America does not produce the same kind of lush, succulent grass as in Europe which is damp and often cold, and thus the guinea pig spends a great deal of its time grazing so as to obtain enough nutrition from the drier, brittle grasses of the plains.

Two Guinea Pigs in a Garden

Public Domain image
Public Domain image | Source

Continued from above

Fortunately, it is very well equipped for this task. It has upper and lower incisor teeth positioned centrally at the front of the jaws, while behind them, deep in the mouth, are the molars and premolars which are somewhat similar to a human's teeth but more V-shaped with the apex of the 'V' pointing out towards the mouth. The big difference between a human's teeth and those of the guinea pig is that the guinea pig's are rootless and continuously growing. This is vital for keeping up with the heavy work load with which they have to contend and grinding down the rich-fibre diet they need to stay fit and healthy. If guinea pigs had the kind of teeth humans have, they would rapidly be ground down to the gum level. It is also very important to be aware of the dentition of these rodents because their teeth are essential for the maintenance of general good health. Many people regard them as eating machines, and as they munch away for most of the time when they are not sleeping, it is certainly a good description of them as eating machines.

Example of a Guinea Pigs Teeth

commons.wikimedia.org (public domain image)
commons.wikimedia.org (public domain image) | Source

Body, Coat and Senses of Guinea Pigs

Sight

The eyesight of a guinea pig cannot match with a human's in the perception of detail, but it is extremely adept at picking up swift movements, especially from above. The birds of prey are among their natural predators in the wild so this makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, as does the fact that their eyes are located high in the head.

Smell

The guinea pig's sense of smell varies tremendously between animals, with some guinea pigs able to pick up the scent of even a small handful of grass being brought into a room whereas other cannot even seem to scent parsley, one of their favourite treats, especially when it is placed under their noses.

Hearing

The one sense that is the most finely honed is that of hearing. It begins a little lower than a human's range and extends way above it

Body

The guinea pig has very short legs in ratio to its long rotund body which is carried close to the ground, giving the rodent a low centre of gravity. This makes it very stable when running and astonishingly agile.

Coat

Really, these are rodents with coats of several colours which can be subdivided into rough-haired, smooth-haired and long-haired varieties, and many of the various breeds take their names from either the texture, patterning or the colouring of these coats.

Other Interesting Facts

  • Guinea pigs are cautious, very alert, and always looking out for threats from predators
  • Domestic guinea pigs love eating fresh grass, just like their wild cousins
  • Guinea pigs incisor teeth are powerful, but are seldom used in anger
  • Guinea pigs are very inquisitive animals and enjoy exploring and investigating new environments

Things to know before owning a Guinea Pig

Misclassification of the Guinea Pig - Rodent or Not?

Do you think guinea pigs are rodents?

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Comments

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    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 

      5 years ago from UK

      No problem. It is possible that they see those colours in different shades of grey, but you're probably right that they do have at least some partial colour vision.

    • aziza786 profile imageAUTHOR

      Zia Uddin 

      5 years ago from Birmingham

      Thanks for commenting, Vitallani. I am not one hundred percent sure whether guinea pigs can see in colour fully or partially, but I do know that they can distinguish between red, blue and yellow. This is according to some scientific experiments. So I think guinea pigs are not completely colour blind, but it depends on the breed also. (Also thanks for spotting the typo which I've just corrected)

    • Vitallani profile image

      Bryony Harrison 

      5 years ago from UK

      What a fascinating hub. I was really interested in where the name comes from, and always wondered what 'Cavy' actually meant. This is a great hub, and clearly thoroughly researched, so I gave it a thumbs up. Do you know whether guinea pigs see in colour or black and white?

      Just thought I'd let you know, there's a small typo in the paragraph above your 2nd picture. You missed out the 't' in 'thought'.

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