Resembling a large gerbil, degus are brown with a cream colored underside and moderately long, tufted tail. Weighing between 170 and 300 grams, they range in size between 325 and 440mm in length. They have large and dark-pigmented ears.
These small rodents are incredibly vocal and use different calls to communicate.
Habitat/ Range: Coastal and central shrub land in Chile on the Western slope of the Andes between Vallenar and Curico. Will inhabit Mediterranean-type semi-arid shrub land, called “mattoral”.
Diet in Wild: Herbivorous, degus feed on grass, leaves, bark, seeds and shrubs found in their home ranges. They are hindgut fermenters. In order to absorb more nutrients from their food, they re-ingest their feces often (coprophagy). Degus cannot metabolize simple sugar such as is found in fruit, and they will develop diabetes and cataracts if fed sugary fruits and vegetables.
Diet in Zoo: Pelleted herbivore diet along with a mixture of fruits and vegetables.
Predators: Many larger mammals, such as foxes, consider degus to be a food source. Many birds will also seek out degus, including barn owls, short eared owls, black-chested buzzard eagles. Because they are often found in large groups, if a predator is spotted an alarm call is used to alert the rest of the group. These animals will then take cover under shrubs in the area or return to burrows.
Life Cycle/ Social Structure: Degus are social creatures and live in communal burrows together. They have been known to dig together in an organized fashion to make more complicated and elaborate tunnel systems then one degu could make on its own. Not only do they dig together, but some females living in a community together may even chose to nest together and nurse each other’s young.
Male to male aggression tends to occur during breeding seasons. Males will try to monopolize females in the burrow, typically 2-4. Breeding will occur once a year in the wild. Gestation for the female is approximately 90 days and a typical litter size is 2-4 pups. They reach sexual maturity at 12-16 weeks. However, they do not reach full size until 6 months old. They will remain in same-sex groups until 9 months old when they have their first breeding season.
Degus are social animals and will live in groups of 1-2 males and 2-5 related females. Females will participate in rearing other female’s young. Degus are semi-fossorial. They will dig extensive communal burrow systems. Dustbathing is a very important social behavior for degus. Groups will repeatedly mark wallows with urine and anal gland secretions. This will help group members identify each other by scent along with territorial boundaries.
Life Span: 5-8 years in the wild is common but can live up to 13 years in captivity
- Believed to have a mutualistic relationship with Bennett’s chinchilla rats. So much so that they are known to share burrow systems and have even been observed in the same chamber within a burrow.
- To avoid being caught by predators, Degus will spin when caught by the tail until the skin becomes loose.
- Because of their intolerance to sugar in their diet, degus are often used in diabetes research.
Conservation Message: Degus are becoming more common in the pet trade. Animals that are more difficult to take care of, like the degu tend to end up being surrendered or sold.
What You Can Do: Degus are very common in the pet trade. However, they have very specific requirements and may not be a good pet for everyone. For example, degus will chew through plastic bottomed cages that are typically found at pet stores. Doing research before acquiring any animal is a vital part of pet ownership and you should be aware of who you are buying your pets from.