Did you know that your sweet and cuddly cavy has quite a few interesting relatives, most living in South America? The domestic cavy (scientific name: cavia porcellus) originated in South America, where wild species still exist today.

Cavies are probably one of the earliest animals to be kept by man for food and companionship. Remains of cavies have been found buried with mummies in tombs of the ancient Incas. Some Incan tribes used cavies as sacrificial offerings to their gods. Indians of Peru, Columbia and Ecuador raised cavies in large numbers for meat and fur long before outsiders arrived at their shores. Those domestic cavies were pretty basic, none of the fancy coat, color and patterns that we have today.

Around 1540 Spanish sailors took cavies aboard ships returning from explorations into South America. Some were eaten as fresh meat, others traveled to new homes throughout Europe. They became popular as pets, even endearing themselves to Queen Elizabeth I. It is unclear when cavies were brought to North America, but they probably arrived with early explorers and settlers. During WWII Italians were encouraged by their government to raise cavies as food to supplement meager war rations. Cavies are still kept as friendly livestock in parts of South America. In Peru cavies are called "cuis", pronounced "kwees".

I can tell you right now, none of these people would have passed my cavy adoption interview. No breeding! And absolutely no eating!

Wild cavies are still found in a wide range of habitats from Columbia and Venezuela down to Brazil and northern Argentina. Cavies in the western regions (scientific name: cavia aperea tschudii) are thought to be the wild breed closest to our pets ancestors. Swampland, grassland, rocky mountain areas, plant covered foothills and forest edges are home to various species of cavy. All are active during the day, feeding on local vegetation, grasses and even the fleshy part of cacti. Most prefer to use abandoned dens of other animals, but can dig their own if necessary. They may also tunnel into dense grass or thickets for shelter. A few swampland breeds have no dens at all.

Fast and agile, wild cavies can run quickly through the underbrush, following maze-like trails. Living in herds of 4-20, these cavies often move single file as a group from one area to another - keeping close contact with each other. Cavies warn each other of danger by whistling and squealing, a signal to run and hide in thickets, crevices or dens. Even pups only a few hours old are agile enough to have a chance at eluding predators. If surprised by a predator, a cavy may save himself by staying quiet and completely still.

The rock cavy (or moko) is the Olympic champion of the cavy world. This athletic specimen can jump several yards, move quickly and easily over rocky terrain and cliffs, and even climb trees for a leafy snack. The Berlin Zoo once had a rock cavy that climbed the smooth glass and concrete walls of its enclosure. They prefer to live under boulders and in crevices of mountain areas in southern Brazil.

Wild cavies are a muddy gray/brown color with dark eyes. They are smaller than our pet cavies, with a pointed nose and longer back legs. One book notes that wild cavies have a small stomach, short small-intestine, long cecum and large-intestine. This is opposite of our pet's large stomach, long small-intestine, short cecum and large-intestine. Wild cavies poop more (hard to believe with some of the little "poop machines" I've owned). Wild cavies are also faster and more agile than our little lap pigs. The golden agouti (black hair tipped with red) or cinnamon agouti (chocolate hair tipped with red) colored American cavy, with it's short smooth coat, would probably most resemble the wild cavy.

Cavies have some very unique and interesting cousins. My favorite is the capybara, known as the world's largest rodent. This cutie looks like a cross between a chocolate colored guinea pig and a hippopotamus. I want one! Adults are 4-4 ½ feet long and weigh 80-110 pounds or more! They live in woods and grasslands with dense undergrowth, close to water. The web-footed capybara spends much time in the water and is an excellent diver and swimmer.

Jaguars, caimans (alligator-like creatures) and South American cowboys are the capybara's greatest threat. According to the article "Orinoco" in the April 1998 National Geographic, "What turkey is to Thanksgiving in the U.S., capybara is to Easter in Venezuela. Tradition holds that the semiaquatic capy is a fish, and so offers guiltless dining during Lent, when faithful Catholics shun meat." Boy, that's a stretch. This issue of the magazine has a couple good photos (page 19, 22 and 23) though one is of an unlucky capybara being chased and lassoed.


The mara is another big cousin of the cavy. Adults are 30" long and weigh 20-35 pounds. This animal is sometimes incorrectly called a pampas hare, due to its resemblance to a rabbit. The mara can run exceptionally fast, jumps up to 6 feet, and digs deep broad burrows. It lives in dry grasslands and thickets.

The false paca (or long tailed paca) has a rough coat, a large moustache, and a long tail. It is comfortable sitting upright. Rare and seldom seen, the false paca may be facing extinction. Such a shame to lose this unique and precious member of the family.

The nutria (or coypu) is a marsh-loving animal that digs its burrows in the sloping banks of streams and lakes. Originally from South America, the nutria is now also found along rivers and streams in southern Canada and scattered parts of the U.S. Like the capybara, the nutria has webbed feet, ears that close shut under water, and is a terrific swimmer.

Adults are about 3 feet long (including a round scaly tail) and weigh 10-20 pounds. These guys look like a cross between a guinea pig and a beaver. The nutrias greatest danger comes from farmers and landowners unappreciative of its landscaping techniques - and trappers greedy for its luxurious dark brown fur.

After learning the perils faced by ancestors and relatives of my cavies, I'm glad my little pets live here safe and comfortable. Think I'll give them all a carrot and a hug - and tell them how lucky they are.

Note: Much of the information for this article was taken from books published in the 1980s, so may be outdated concerning the current range of cavies in South America.

If you would like to see some vintage engravings of cavies and their relatives, click here

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