Degus originate from Chile in South America, where they live in large family groups. Degus are highly social animals, often living in colonies of around 10, but there have been reports of groups of 60 Degus and more. They live in underground burrows of rooms and tunnels, expanding as more Degus join the colony. The burrows provide shelter from the weather as well as a place to hide from predators that can not be easily infiltrated during sleeping. This is contrary to their biology, as most burrowing animals have small eyes and nails whereas Degus have big eyes and claws1Woods, C. and Boraker, D. (1975) 'Octodon degus.' Mammalian Species, 67 (5).. They typically spend a few hours in the morning and afternoon, avoiding the main heat on the surface, where they forage for food in groups, using their good vision, hearing and smell to detect predators. Predators of the Degu include different varieties of bird and foxes. Degus exhibit a wide array of communication techniques. They use their urine to mark their territory, and experiments have shown that they react to one another's scents. Degus are seasonal breeders with the breeding season for wild Degus beginning in the Chilean autumn, with pups born 3 months later in early to mid spring. Unlike other mammals, Degus do not hibernate.
Degus are strictly herbivores, feeding on grasses and the leaves of shrubs, though they will also eat seeds. Throughout much of the year forage is dried and so Degus are specially adapted to a very high fibre intake. Although they are active by day, in high summer they do not leave their burrows in the middle of the day and instead emerge to forage in the mornings and evenings. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Degu physiology is their intolerance of dietary sugar. Degus have been found to have a divergent insulin structure (one of the hormones that regulates blood glucose level) and so are highly susceptible to developing diabetes when fed regularly on a diet containing free sugars. This is thought to be due to evolutionary pressure arising from the lack of availability of free sugars in the Degu's natural environment, meaning the ability to handle them was 'phased out' of their system.
- Ebensperger, L. and Bozinovic, F. (2000) 'Energetics and burrowing behaviour in the semifossorial degu Octodon degus (Rodentia: Octodontidae).' Journal of Zoology, 252: 179-186.
- Woods, C. and Boraker, D. (1975) 'Octodon degus.' Mammalian Species, 67 (5).