What is a Degu?
The world is filled with fascinating creatures of all kinds, in numbers so vast that most of us will never begin to become familiar with even a fraction of them. However, now and then a new animal will begin to gain familiarity among the general population. One creature that is becoming more well known to pet owners and animal enthusiasts in general, is the degu.
It’s a Rabbit! It’s a Gerbil! It’s a … Degu?
Members of the order Rodentia, degus, sometimes called “brush-tailed rats”, are actually more closely related to guinea pigs, chinchillas, and rabbits. When it comes to their appearance, degus may be described as looking like huge gerbils with faces similar to squirrels. Their overall coat coloring ranges from medium to dark brown, with a light, cream-colored belly, white feet, and a tuft of black fur at the ends of their tails. As adults, they weigh between 6 and 14 ounces and have a total length of up to 12 inches – with their body approximately 6 inches in length, and a tail length of about another 6 inches.
Growing Up Degu
Degus are native to Chile, with their natural habitat extending all the way from the Andes Mountains to the coastal plains. They are highly social animals, living in intricate burrows which are comprised of tunnels, nests, and stores of food. In their natural environment, degus form surprisingly large groups, with up to 100 individuals all living in a community together. In the wild, degus live only an average of one to two years, though this number jumps dramatically when they are kept in captivity – boosting their lifespan to a length of up to eight or nine years.
From the Wild to Domestication
Initially, degus were taken from the wild largely for study. As they have many highly unusual characteristics, they are of great interest to scientists, particularly in relation to the field of medicine. After their introduction to other parts of the world through science, people began to appreciate degus for their potential as companion animals, as well. In addition to their cute appearance, these little guys are endearing due to their intelligence, fun personalities, and affectionate demeanor, and recently they have become increasingly popular as pets – now even beginning to be sold in pet shops. People who keep degus report relative ease of care – provided basic precautions and good diet – and describe them as being very rewarding little companions.
The Degu as a Social Animal
Degus really enjoy the company of both humans and fellow degus. If they are kept as pets, they tend to enjoy contact and affection from their human friends, and can form bonds that make them wonderful pets. But it must be remembered that even with lots of attention and love from humans, degus are generally much happier if they can share a home with at least one other animal of their species. Extreme caution must be taken with multiple male degus, however, as males that do not get along may fight to the death. For this reason, it is vital that males be separated immediately if they begin to become aggressive with each other.
So, What Makes a Degu So Different?
Because of their resemblance to various other rodents, it is easy to make the assumption that they are essentially the same in their behavior, personality, and health characteristics, as well. However, there are definitely a number of things that make the degu stand out from its cousins, and truly from all types of animals.
Degus are typically diurnal
Unlike most other rodents which sleep during the day and wake at night, degus’ sleep schedules are the opposite, meaning they are awake during the day and sleep at night, as humans generally do. However, their sleep cycle occurs in approximately 20-minute bursts, between which they may get up and move around. Interestingly, though their typical sleeping pattern is diurnal, it has been noted in research studies that degus are capable of showing nocturnal sleep rhythms as well if their environment fits the right requirements. This has made them of interest to scientists who study circadian rhythms.
They have the ability to easily recognize people and things
Degus have quite an astounding ability for advanced behavior that other rodents do not, such as identifying different humans, objects, and sounds with which they are familiar. This is part of the reason they are known to make great pets. Depending on their relationship with a person and their mood, degus may produce different sounds when they see this person, such as warbling, squeaking, and chattering. If they like the person they see, they will likely run to them for affection.
Degus are more sensitive to their diet than other rodents
Not all the differences about these creatures are fun and games. Degus are much more susceptible to health problems depending on what they eat, as their bodies do not deal with sugar as efficiently as other rodents’. Because of this, they are prone to diabetes, and their health can decline rapidly if they are fed too much or the wrong type of diet. It is in fact due to this link with diabetes that degus were originally being studied so closely, and so, ultimately got the chance to work their way into ordinary people’s lives in places other than their country of origin.
They are known to lose their tails easily
Another not-so-fun, but admittedly fascinating fact about degus is that they can actually shed their cute, tufted tails as a defense mechanism in times of danger, much like some forms of lizards. As with lizards, during rough handling, grabbing of the tail, or extreme duress, the degu’s tail is detached from its base, pulling away and leaving a stump of exposed bone and surrounding tissue. Also as with lizards, this does not cause the creature major health problems, other than the loss of the tail. Unfortunately, unlike most lizards, the tail of the degu does not grow back. Instead, the degu proceeds to chew away the remaining bone and tissue, after which the stump begins to heal at its amputation point.
Though at first glance degus may resemble other rodents, they have a number of extremely interesting characteristics entirely of their own. Whether as pets, wild animals, or simply a point of interest, these creatures are truly unique and fascinating. As degus become more and more popular, we are all more likely to be lucky enough to get to know these incredible creatures in person.