Welcome to the fascinating world of the capybara, the largest rodent on Earth! Often mistaken for a giant guinea pig, this South American native has charmed wildlife enthusiasts and biologists alike with its social behavior, adaptability, and intriguing life cycle.
In this comprehensive fact sheet, we will dive into everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the capybara—from its classification and anatomy to its natural habitat and conservation status. So, let’s embark on this journey to uncover the secrets of this amazing creature.
The Capybara at a Glance
|3.9-4.9 ft (1.2-1.5 m)
|77-146 lbs (35-66 kg)
|Least Concern (IUCN Red List)
Species and Subspecies
The capybara is generally considered to belong to a single species, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, although some taxonomists have proposed a second species, the Lesser Capybara (Hydrochoerus isthmius), which is found in Panama.
The differences between these two are mostly in size and geographical distribution. Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris is generally larger and found in a broader range of South American countries, whereas Hydrochoerus isthmius is typically smaller and restricted to Panama.
The capybara doesn’t have traditional subspecies, but regional variations can be noted in terms of size, weight, and fur color. Some are slightly darker or lighter depending on the local environment.
The capybara is a robust animal with a barrel-shaped body covered in coarse, brown fur that can vary from reddish-brown to dark grey. Its face is relatively small with rounded ears, and its eyes and nostrils are positioned high on its head, aiding in its semi-aquatic lifestyle. Its legs are relatively short, but it moves both on land and in water with surprising agility.
A noticeable feature of the capybara’s anatomy is its webbed feet, which makes it an excellent swimmer. These animals are adept at staying submerged, able to remain underwater for up to five minutes.
In terms of sexual dimorphism, males are generally slightly larger than females and may have a distinctive scent gland, called a “morrillo,” on their snouts, which they use for marking territory.
Habitat and Distribution
Capybaras are native to South America and are commonly found in a variety of wetland habitats, including marshes, swamps, and along riverbanks.
They are highly adaptable and can even be found in man-made environments like cattle ranches and agricultural land, as long as there is access to water. Countries where they are most commonly sighted include Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay.
Capybaras are diurnal creatures, meaning they are most active during the day, particularly in the morning and late afternoon. They are social animals and typically live in groups of 10 to 30 individuals, although larger groups of up to 100 have been observed. These groups usually consist of a dominant male, multiple females, and their offspring.
Communication among capybaras is rich and includes a variety of vocalizations like purrs, whistles, barks, and squeals. They also communicate through body postures and, to a lesser extent, scent markings.
An interesting aspect of their behavior is their symbiotic relationship with various bird species. Birds such as the yellow-headed caracara often perch on capybaras to feed on ticks and other parasites, providing a cleaning service to the capybaras while gaining a meal in return.
Diet and Feeding Behavior
Capybaras are primarily herbivores, feeding on a wide range of plant materials including grasses, aquatic plants, grains, and fruits. They also consume tree bark and will nibble on soft twigs. They have complex, multi-chambered stomachs that allow them to effectively digest hard fibrous plants.
Feeding mostly takes place in the early morning and late afternoon. Capybaras are selective feeders, choosing the most nutritious parts of plants. They are also known to practice coprophagy, consuming their own feces to absorb additional nutrients.
Capybaras have several natural predators that they need to be cautious of. These include jaguars, pumas, ocelots, harpy eagles, and caimans. Young capybaras are particularly vulnerable and can fall prey to animals like large snakes.
Capybaras rely on their keen senses and agility in the water to evade these predators. When threatened, they give a loud bark to alert the group and usually head for the water, where they can stay submerged to escape danger.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Capybaras have a polygynous mating system, where a single dominant male mates with multiple females in the group. Females give birth to a litter of two to eight pups after a gestation period of about 130 days. The young are precocial, meaning they are well-developed at birth and can run and swim within hours.
Mothers nurse their young but are assisted by other females in the group, showcasing a communal care system. The young are weaned at around 16 weeks but will start nibbling on grasses as early as one week.
Conservation and Threats
The capybara is currently listed as a species of “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, indicating that they are not immediately threatened. However, habitat destruction due to agriculture and human settlements is a concern for their future. Additionally, they are hunted for their meat and hide, particularly in some areas of South America.
Conservation efforts mainly focus on habitat preservation and sustainable hunting practices. Some countries have imposed hunting bans during the breeding season to ensure the population remains stable.
No specific conservation program is targeted solely at capybaras, but they benefit from broader ecosystem conservation initiatives.
- Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents.
- They have webbed feet, making them excellent swimmers.
- Capybaras are known for their calm demeanor and often form symbiotic relationships with other animals like birds.
- A group of capybaras is called a “capybara army.”
- Capybaras can stay submerged underwater for up to five minutes to hide from predators.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do capybaras live?
In most jurisdictions, it is illegal to own a Capuchin monkey as a pet. Even where it’s legal, it’s highly discouraged due to their complex social and physical needs, which are difficult to meet in a domestic setting.
What do capybaras eat?
They primarily eat grasses, aquatic plants, and fruits. They are herbivores but will occasionally consume their own feces for additional nutrients.
Can capybaras be kept as pets?
In some jurisdictions, it’s legal to keep capybaras as pets, but they require a lot of space and a swimming area. They are social animals, so it’s often recommended to keep them in pairs or groups.
How fast can a capybara run?
Capybaras can run at speeds of up to 22 miles per hour (35 km/h) when they are on land.
Do capybaras get along with other animals?
Yes, they are often seen socializing with a variety of animals, including birds and other mammals. Their calm nature makes them amenable to these interspecies interactions.