Genius Guineas and Crafty Cavies: Are Domestic Piggies Smarter than Their Wild Cousins?

by Melissa Freeman

At least 4500 years ago, people in South America began taming the wild cavy, which eventually became the domestic guinea pig. Due to its smaller brain size, the guinea pig has often been regarded by researchers as less intelligent than the cavy.  However, scientific studies have shown otherwise. While cavies are more likely to take risks when exploring a foreign environment, the domestic guinea pig has much stronger social instincts and a greater ability to solve man-made puzzles. Both are very intelligent-- in different ways.

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In one study, adolescent guinea pigs and cavies were placed in foreign enclosures and observed.  The cavies explored more quickly and roamed further than the guinea pigs. Some of the guinea pigs barely explored at all, preferring to stay in a small area. 

In another test, the animals were placed into an enclosure with an unfamiliar baby piggy protected by a cage.  While both guinea pigs and cavies interacted with the infant, the guinea pigs visited more frequently and for longer than the cavies did. A similar experiment was performed where the animals were exposed to an unfamiliar pregnant piggy. Guinea pigs were much quicker to display courtship behavior than their wild counterparts. 

Another study challenged the guinea pigs and cavies in the Morris water maze, a circular pool where the animals swim around to find a hidden platform.  Domestic guinea pigs learned the task more quickly than the cavies did, proving that their decreased brain size does not decrease their learning ability.

These studies show that both guinea pigs and cavies have adapted to their  environments.  For cavies, willingness to explore is a necessary trait for survival. Guinea pigs tend to live in controlled spaces with more exposure to other guinea pigs and humans.  This allows their social personalities to emerge. 

To learn more about the studies mentioned above, visit the sources below.  

Sources:  

“Wild genius—domestic fool?  Spatial learning abilities of wild and domestic guinea pigs,” by Lars Lewejohann, Thorsten Pickel, Norbert Sachser and Sylvia Kaiser.  Frontiers in Zoology 2010. <http://frontiersinzoology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1742-9994-7-9>

 “Effects of domestication on biobehavioral profiles:  a comparison of domestic guinea pigs and wild cavies from early to late adolescence,” by Benjamin Zipser, Anja Schleking, Sylvia Kaiser and Norbert Sachser.  Frontiers in Zoology 2014.  <http://frontiersinzoology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1742-9994-11-30>