Guinea pigs are Hystricomorph Rodents and are part of the Caviidae family. This means guinea pigs are related to chinchillas, porcupines, capybaras, and 16 other specials originating from South America. The closest cousins of the American guinea pig are the yellow-toothed cavies and mountain cavies.
Guinea pigs are often an important part of a person’s family, but who are their furry cousins?
Where are Guinea Pigs From?
Originally, guinea pigs came from the Andes region of South America long before they made their way into our hearts and homes.
The domestic guinea pig was bred from wild guinea pigs that roamed the Andes and neighboring regions in South America. The indigenous people of the area domesticated guinea pigs primarily as livestock.
While many cultures in South America raised guinea pigs as a food source, guinea pigs were sometimes used in traditional healing and some spiritual ceremonies. Guinea pigs were also selectively bred to have different appearances and fur colors and textures.
How did the guinea pig make its way from livestock to a beloved pet? In the 16th century, traders brought guinea pigs to Europe and North America, where they were quickly adopted as pets because of their friendly nature.
Like the people of the Andes, Europeans of the 16th century selectively bred guinea pigs to produce even more breeds.
Modern Guinea Pig Breeds
There are many breeds of domestic guinea pigs. Today, the American Cavy Breeders Association recognizes 13 different breeds: Abyssinian, Abyssinian Satin, American, American Satin, Coronet, Peruvian, Peruvian Satin, Silkie, Silkie Satin, Teddy, Teddy Satin, Texel, and White Crested guinea pig.
Four of the most common breeds are the American, Abyssinian, Teddy, and Peruvian.
When you think of a guinea pig, you’re probably thinking of the American guinea pig, which has smooth, short hair and are the most common guinea pigs in pet stores.
The Abyssinian pig has fur with many swirls, called rosettes, giving them a unique look.
Teddy guinea pigs look a lot like their name—their coats look fluffier than other guinea pigs (although their fur is quite wiry!).
Rounding out the top four is the Peruvian guinea pig, the long-haired beauty queen of the bunch.
The Guinea Pig’s Rodent Family
Domestic guinea pigs exist on just one branch of the extensive rodent family tree. Let’s look at a few of their closest relatives.
Guinea pigs belong to a group of rodents called hystricomorph rodents. There are over 230 hystricomorph rodents, and many are native to South America, guinea pigs included.
Some members of hystricomorph rodents are chinchillas, porcupines, and capybaras. It’s not difficult to see the family resemblances between capybaras and guinea pigs—they have similar physical profiles, including the shape of their head and snout.
Capybaras look like very large guinea pigs, sometimes weighing over 100 pounds. While capybaras can be friendly, they are also less social than guinea pigs and can become aggressive when they feel threatened.
Like the capybara, guinea pigs belong to the Caviidae family alongside 16 other species. Caviidae species are all located in South America across a variety of habitats.
The Caviidae family is typically characterized by stocky bodies, short limbs and ears, and large heads and eyes.
The exception to this rule is the maras, which resemble hares and rabbits more closely than guinea pigs. This clear difference makes sense because the Caviidae is split into two subfamilies: the Dolichotinae family (which consists of maras) and the Caviinae family (which includes everyone else in the Caviidae family).
Even though the mara is a cousin to the guinea pig, they are quite different. Maras are considered the fourth largest rodent (beaten in size only by the capybara, beavers, and porcupines).
They have long ears, whereas guinea pigs have short ears and long, athletic legs instead of short limbs. Unlike guinea pigs, maras are often shy. They will go to great lengths to avoid people and social encounters—including changing their sleeping habits!
Closer relatives to the guinea pig are the yellow-toothed cavies and the mountain cavies. Yellow-toothed cavies are also small rodents, and as their name suggests, have yellow teeth.
They are burrowers and like to live a solitary life, unlike guinea pigs. Also, unlike guinea pigs, yellow-toothed cavies are diurnal and love to be out during the day, while guinea pigs are crepuscular and are most active during dawn and twilight.
Mountain cavies are physically similar to yellow-toothed cavies, but they are socially closer to their guinea pig relatives. For example, mountain cavies like to live in colonies and are much more social than yellow-toothed cavies. They enjoy being out during the day, even in hot weather, unlike the crepuscular guinea pig.
Close Cousins: Wild Guinea Pigs
Unsurprisingly, the closest relatives to the domestic guinea pig are wild guinea pigs, which still roam South America and the Andes region today.
There are four species of wild guinea pig: the Brazilian guinea pig, the greater guinea pig, the intermediate or Santa Catarina’s guinea pig, and the montane guinea pig.
The Brazilian guinea pig is medium-sized, diurnal, and lives in surface tunnels rather than burrows. It has a stable population and is not considered an endangered species.
Similarly, the greater guinea pig is not in danger of extinction. However, it has a more restricted habitat range than most other wild guinea pigs.
As its name suggests, the greater guinea pig is the largest of wild guinea pig species (although most domestic guinea pigs are larger).
Santa Catarina’s guinea pig, or the intermediate guinea pig, is found on a small coastal island called Moleques do Sul Archipelago off the coast of Brazil, giving it one of the smallest habitat regions for any mammal.
Of all the wild guinea pig species, Santa Catarina’s guinea pigs are the only endangered ones. They are considered critically endangered because of their limited habitat and low reproduction rate.
The domestic guinea pig’s most direct cousin is the montane guinea pig, which is considered the ancestor of the domestic guinea pig. The montane guinea pigs are burrowers, but they also like to run through surface tunnels in the foliage.
They are social and live in small colonies in their burrows. Like both the Brazilian guinea pig and the greater guinea pig, they are not endangered. If you visit the Andes today, you might catch a glimpse of the montane guinea pig running around during the day.
While guinea pigs have a lot of rodent cousins to call family, you could always argue that you’re the most important relative to your own furry sweetheart.