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What are Degus?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2014
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Degus are highly intelligent social rodents, sometimes kept as pets. They are the type members of the rodent family Octodontidae, named because the wear pattern of their teeth is roughly a figure eight. There are thirteen species in nine genera, some named with variants on degu, like the Moon-toothed Degu, but the type species is Octodon degus. Some of the species, including the common degu, are called Brush-Tailed Rats or Viscacha-Rats, though they are not closely related to the rat family. At one point, it was thought that they might be better classified as lagomorphs, based on morphological characteristics, but subsequent molecular systematics studies established their solid position within caviomorph rodents.

Degus are native to South America, especially concentrated in the Andes mountains, which include a large number of endemic plant and animal species, and are relatively isolated from the rest of the continent due to the terrain. Though native to South America, degus have been introduced worldwide as pets, gaining in popularity especially in recent times.

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Degus are considered demanding pets because their social needs are great and their dietary needs are particular. However, the benefit is that degus are smarter than other rodents such as mice, rats, and hamsters. In fact, degus are the only known rodents that can be taught to use tools. Researchers at Japan’s Institute of Physical and Chemical Research were able to get a degus to use a miniature rake to obtain a sunflower seed on the other side of a barrier. Research on degus appears to be gaining a recent popularity among some scientists in Japan, also with a demonstration that degus spontaneously construct "Chinese boxes" when given the required materials, considered by the authors of the study to be suggestive of a rudimentary form of recursive intelligence.

Degus are not domesticated to the degree that other popular pet rodents are, and require great attention from humans while growing up to establish relationships with them. Considering a degu for a pet is a serious venture, and any prospective owner will need to conduct much research on the specifics of degus, requiring far more information that can be fit in this short article.

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