The capybara is the world's largest extant rodent
, native to Central
and South America
to northern Argentina
). They are about two feet tall at the shoulder, three to four feet long and can weigh up to 100 pounds. Their scientific name (Hydrochoerus hydrochoerus
), from the latin
meaning 'water pig', is particularly descriptive. The common name, capybara, is from the language of the Guarani
and means 'Master of the grasses'.
General biology and behaviour
Capybaras live near and in the water, and have evolved partially webbed feet
to help them swim. It is so comfortable in the water that capybaras have even been observed to sleep while in the water
, with only their noses breaking the surface of the water. They feed on aquatic and shoreline vegetation
, particularly grass
es. They will also feed upon fruit
s when they are available.
Capybaras are not sexually dimorphic, and the only way to differentiate a male from a female is by the presence of teats or morillos, their scent glands (which are more prominent in the males). These scent glands are located on the snout, and these animals use the morrillo, along with their anal scent glands, to mark their territories.
They are social animals, and continually communicate with one another by purring and grunting. They tend to remain in small groups of about 10 animals. These groups are of mixed sex, and young males (who are solitary) often expend considerable effort to join with established groups in order to have a chance to reproduce.
Copulation takes place, like most of the animals' life, in the water. Gestation time is roughly 150 days, and prior to giving birth the female will separate from the social group. Females give birth to, on average, four pups. After three or four days, the young and the mother rejoin the social group. Very quickly, the young begin to feed on grass, and will continue to suckle for months. Interestingly enough, the young will suckle from any lactating female, not just their mother. Young grow quickly, reaching sexual maturity in 15 months.
The capybara is an important food resource for many large predators in South America. The young are eaten by vultures, wild dogs, caimans, foxes, anacondas, ocelots and jaguars. The caiman, anaconda and jaguar will also hunt adult capybaras. When a predator is detected, the adults will bark a warning to one another, and rush into the water. Once in the water, the adults gather into a circle, facing out and the young are herded into the center. This behaviour is similar to that of the musk ox.
The capybara, as most rodents, reproduce very rapidly and thus are generally not easily extirpate
d. However, they do rely on forested areas with clean water for their survival, and thus habitat destruction
takes its toll. Despite this, the capybara is considered to be in very good shape as a species; it is not classified by CITES
or the IUCN
as being threatened.
Importance to humans
The capybara is consume
d by the local populations in South America. Their flesh is a white meat
similar to pork
, and people have tried to produce sausage
s and chops, but the most popular mode of consumption is dried or salted. In Venezuela
more than 400 ton
s are sold annually (as of 1991). There is some interest in trying to raise the animals for food, especially given their tame
nature. Even more attractive is the fact that while capybaras and cattle
share a food resource, they do not overlap in space as the capybaras must remain in or near the water. Thus some ranchers are experimenting with the idea of raising the two species together. An added benefit is the fact that the pelt
of the capybara is also market
ed in South America.
Given their tame character, capybaras are also kept as pets. In fact, if you search online, you can surely find web sites advertising companies which will sell you your very own giant rodent.
The capybara is the only living species of the family Hydrochoeridae
, but historically there were even larger members of the species.
Information culled from, among other places, ...