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Visitors to the Amazonia exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo can now learn about the natural history and cultural significance of a familiar animal—the guinea pig. Though guinea pigs are common pets in North America, they can have different roles in the Peruvian Andes and other parts of the Amazon where they were originally domesticated.
As visitors exit the canopy of the Amazonia exhibit, they will see a new guinea pig village, home to seven female guinea pigs. The village is styled after guinea pig houses in Peru and includes little houses, ramps and bridges for climbing and soft bedding.
The guinea pigs spend their days exploring their village and socializing. They rarely sit still for more than 10 minutes at a time and spend less than 4% of their day sleeping. The time they spend sleeping is more like short naps than deep sleep; they usually sleep for less than 6 minutes at a time. Guinea pigs are extremely social animals and require a significant amount of social interaction every day from their human caretakers or other guinea pigs. Visitors may hear the guinea pigs vocalizing to each other or see them simply spending time near each other.
The seven guinea pigs moved to the National Zoo from the Nashville Zoo and are 6 months old. They are distinguishable from each other by their different hairstyles and coloration that corresponds with their different breeds. The three Abyssinian guinea pigs, Inti (INN-TEA), Sinchi (SIN-CHI) and Miski (MISS-KEY), have medium-length hair that can appear as if it is full of cowlicks. The two Peruvian guinea pigs, Masi (MAH-SEA) and Sani (SAH-KNEE), have long hair that flows form the top of their backs to the ground. Tuta (TWO-TA), an American guinea pig, has short, sleek black hair. Imilla (AH-MIL-AH) is a teddy guinea pig and has short fluffy dark brown, light brown and white hair.
Like other rodents, guinea pigs’ teeth never stop growing, so they constantly wear them down by chewing on root vegetables and leafy branches. At the Zoo they eat squash, carrots, corn, green beans and a pellet diet. Their favorite treat is romaine lettuce.
As the guinea pigs acclimate to their new village, keepers will begin giving opportunistic demonstrations with them so visitors can see the guinea pigs up-close. The guinea pigs will always have the choice to participate in demonstrations, and if they prefer to stay in their village keepers will not move them.
Guinea pigs are domesticated, but they may have descended from the montane guinea pig, or cavies (kay-vees), found in the Andes mountains of Peru, Chile and Argentina. Cavies can still be found in the Andes. Though they are common pets in North America, guinea pigs are kept as livestock in the Andes. Pairs of guinea pigs are often gifted to newly married couples. They are also celebrated during certain festivals and religious events. At some festivals they are dressed in elaborate costumes or used to honor local saints.
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