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By the time they’re teenagers, guinea pigs are already domesticated

By the time they’re teenagers, guinea pigs are already domesticated
09 Apr 2014

The key differences between domesticated guinea pigs (Cavia aperea f. porcellus) and their wild cavy cousins emerge before they reach adolescence.

In results published in the open access journal Frontiers in Zoology, scientists demonstrate the significant differences between wild and domesticated guinea pigs’ behaviour and hormone levels. They think that the guinea pigs have more social interactions, increasing their testosterone levels, and causing the behavioural changes that make them such great pets.

Guinea pigs are the domesticated form of cavies. They were first bred as pets in Western Europe in the 16th century, and before then South Americans bred them for food, pets and even used them in religious rituals and folk medicine. Like other domesticated animals, they show less aggression than their wild counterparts. What hasn’t been clear, is how this domestication happens – is it genetic changes due to generations of selective breeding, is it because the animals are brought up in domestic surroundings, or is it a bit of both?

To explore this, the scientists did a direct comparison of ten male guinea pigs and eight male cavies during early and late adolescence.

They looked at the guinea pigs’ behaviour, to see if they interacted easily with each other, and whether they were daring enough to explore new spaces and jump off platforms.

They found that as early as adolescence, the guinea pigs were more sociable and less adventurous than cavies. Tests of hormone levels in both groups showed that guinea pigs also produced much less of the stress hormone cortisol, and they produced much more testosterone than did the cavies. They think it might be these hormones which cause the differences between the behaviour of domesticated and wild guinea pigs.

Lead author Benjamin Zipser from the University of Münster says: “We think that the more social interactions a male guinea pig has during adolescence, the higher its testosterone levels are. Higher testosterone levels in turn organise lower cortisol reactivity, which can lead to lower levels of aggression. This mechanism could partially explain what drives the phenotypic differentiation between guinea pigs and cavies. Of course, these hypotheses still have to be thoroughly tested.”


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Notes to Editor

1. Effects of domestication on biobehavioural profiles: a comparison of domestic guinea pigs and wild cavies from early to late adolescence
Benjamin Zipser, Anja Schleking, Sylvia Kaiser and Norbert Sachser
Frontiers in Zoology
Article available at journal website

Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BioMed Central's open access policy.

2. Frontiers in Zoology is an open access, peer-reviewed online journal publishing high quality research articles and reviews on all aspects of animal life.
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