South America's Unique Animals

The Capybara

The capybara is the largest rodent alive. It is related to other South American rodents such as the agouti, chinchilla and guinea pig. Its taxonomic name is Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris comes from the Greek words for 'water' and 'pig or hog'. Its common name is derived from the Guarani language and translates as 'master of the grasses'. The capybara is semi-aquatic

The capybara is found through most of South America including Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Suriname, Argentina, Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. Escapees are now found in aquatic habitats around the world, including Florida and, in 2011, the central coast of California.

Capybara FeedingCredit: Wikimedia

Home ranges average 10 hectares with the animals living in high density congregations.

The capybara is found near bodies of water either in savannah areas or in dense forest. Lakes, rivers, swamps, marshlands and ponds are all suitable habitats for the capybara. They flourish on ranchlands to the point of being regarded as serious competition for domestic livestock.

The heavy capybara has a barrel-shaped body. The head is short. Adults measure 107 to 134 cm in length, are 50 to 64 cm tall and weigh between 35 and 66 kg. The average on the Venezuelan llanos is 48.9 kg. Females are slightly heavier than males.

There is a vestigial tail. The coat is devoid of underhair and is reddish-brown on the dorsal surfaces and more creamy underneath. The thin, coarse hair gives good protection from the undergrowth without the animal becoming too hot. However in the heat of the day the animal is in danger of drying out and wallows in mud and/or water to keep cool and hydrated.

The capybara has sweat glands in the skin surface which is unusual among rodents. The hindquarters are slightly longer than the forelegs and the feet have a small amount of webbing.

Capybara HeadCredit: Wikimedia

The eyes, ears and nostrils are all situated on top of the head and the muzzles are blunt. The jaw hinge of the capybara is non-perpendicular and food is ground in a back and forth fashion rather than from side to side.

There are two scent glands. A 'morillo' is located on the snout and an anal gland near the anus. The anal pocket of the male opens more easily and is lined with detachable hairs which are coated with a long-lasting scent secretion. These hairs are released on objects such as plants and are tasted by other capybaras. The morillo is rubbed on objects and urination is also used to mark objects.

Like many rodent species, the front teeth grow continually in compensation for the continual wearing down of the teeth through eating. The cheek teeth also grow continually.

The capybara is normally highly social. Some occasionally live a solitary life but it is usually found in groups of 10 to 20 individuals. Sometimes larger groups of 100 animals congregate together. The smaller groups consists of 2 to 4 adult males, 4 to 7 adult females and the rest juveniles. Capybaras chatter continually in their groups, establishing social bonds or working out dominance issues. They have a bark which is decidedly dog-like. This is heard when the animals are threatened or when the females are herding their young.

Capybara(85235)Credit: Wikimedia

Capybaras are great swimmers and will submerge for up to five minutes to escape predators. They can also sleep in the water, just keeping their noses (which are conveniently situated on top of the head) above the water level. As temperatures increase towards noon, they wallow in the water, grazing again late afternoon and into the early evening. They have another period of rest through the middle of the night and are grazing again well before dawn.

In captivity, life expectancy is twelve years. Capybaras are gentle by nature and not difficult to tame.

Grasses, aquatic plants, fruit and tree bark are all eaten by the capybara although they are very selective when feeding, often eating out one species and ignoring any others. During the dry season, they will eat a greater variety including reeds.

Capybaras practise coprophagy, eating their own faeces. This replenishes the bacterial gut flora and helps digest the cellulose in the grass, extracting the maximum protein from their intake. They also regurgitate food to be chewed again, much as a cow chews its cud. The capybara (and the guinea pig) is unable to synthesise Vitamin C.

The scent of a female capybara changes subtly when she is ready to mate. She will also whistle through her nose. Mating occurs in water and the female will submerge or leave the water if she doesn't fancy a prospective partner. The peak breeding season in Venezuela is from April to May. In Brazil, it is between October and November.

Capybara FamilyCredit: Wikimedia

Gestation is 130 to 150 days and the usual litter is four. The babies are born on land and the mother rejoins the group within a few hours. Although the young start eating grass within a week, they suckle from any female until about 4 months old.

Although the life span is 8 to 10 years, many fall prey to anacondas, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, eagle and caimans. They are sometimes killed by ranchers because they compete with domestic livestock for grazing land. In some areas they are farmed for their meat and pelts. They are an important source of protein in the diet of some native groups. In Venezuela (and, according to one site) other parts of South America, the meat is very popular during the period of Lent as special dispensation allows the consumption of capybara meat but not of other types. One reason given for the dispensation was that the capybara was considered an aquatic animal making its consumption acceptable.

The survival of the capybara is not regarded as threatened although it is hunted for its meat and pelt. Hunting has reduced its numbers in some regions but populations are mostly stable. Some are kept as pets in the United States but the legality of keeping capybaras varies from state to state. There are a number of parks and zoos which keep capybaras as they are relatively low maintenance, have gentle natures and quite readily become friendly and can then be hand-fed by the public.