The Guinea Pig has been domesticated for over 5,000 years (please see article below). It’s no secret that domestication can radically change an animal’s appearance – most taxonomists now consider the Domestic Dog to be a subspecies of the Gray Wolf, and not a distinct species – but you’d never guess that when viewing a Maltese and a Wolf side-by-side!
Domestication also affects survival skills – while Cats, Ferrets and some Dogs may slide seamlessly from pampered pet to “wild” creature (I’ve seen photos of a feral Husky leading a Wolf pack and bringing down a Caribou), others, such as Sheep and Chickens, usually cannot. Brain size may be reduced as well, with domestic animals usually having smaller brains than their wild ancestors.
Domestication’s Effects-Brains and Brawn
However, according to a recent (March, 2010) article in the journal Frontiers in Zoology, while domestication has reduced brain size in Guinea Pigs, it apparently has not affected their problem-solving abilities. Researchers at Germany’s University of Munster found that domestic Guinea Pigs were actually better at deciphering symbols than were wild Cavies (their presumed ancestor). The Cavies, however, proved physically stronger in demanding tasks, such as swimming.
The animals used in the test were placed in a tank of water and had to find a platform hidden beneath the surface by using symbols on the tank’s walls as a guide. I thought this to be rather complicated for an animal that does not normally spend much time in the water, but all were able to complete the task (not sure how good I’d do!).
The researches theorize that long association with people and the mazes and cages they create has led the rodents to evolve their unique problem-solving abilities.
Please see The Guinea Pig: History in Captivity and Wild Ancestors for some of the unusual facts and interesting history surrounding this popular pet and invaluable lab animal.
Wild Cavy image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Petra Karstedt