Bitter avoidance in guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) and mice (Mus musculus and Peromyscus leucopus)

J Comp Psychol. 2010 Nov;124(4):455-9. doi: 10.1037/a0020792.


Rejection of bitter substances is common in many species and may function to protect an animal from ingestion of bitter-tasting toxins. Since many plants are bitter, it has been proposed that high tolerance for bitterness would be adaptive for herbivores. Earlier studies conducted on herbivorous guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) have been used to support this proposal. We tested guinea pigs with bitter plant secondary metabolites (salicin, caffeine, quinine hydrochloride) and bitter protein hydrolysates (two types of hydrolyzed casein, hydrolyzed soy) in a series of two-choice preference tests. For comparison, we tested two nonherbivorous mouse species (Mus musculus and Peromyscus leucopus). Guinea pigs did show weaker avoidance of quinine hydrochloride than did the mice, confirming predictions generated from earlier work. However, guinea pigs had similar responses to caffeine as did Peromyscus. Both of these species showed weaker avoidance responses than Mus to 10 mM caffeine. For salicin, guinea pigs were the only species to avoid it at 10 mM and their preference scores at this concentration were significantly lower than for the two mice species. Guinea pigs avoided all of the protein hydrolysates more strongly than the other species. Responses to the protein hydrolysates did not reflect the patterns observed with the simple bitter compounds, suggesting that other properties of these complex stimuli may be responsible for guinea pig avoidance of them. Our results suggest caution in accepting, without further empirical support, the premise that guinea pigs (and herbivores in general) have a generalized reduced bitter sensitivity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Guinea Pigs
  • Mice
  • Peromyscus
  • Species Specificity
  • Taste Perception / physiology*
  • Taste Threshold / physiology*