Capybaras: Giant Rodents of South America and Exotic Pets
The Largest Rodent in the World
Capybaras are the largest rodents in the world. The stocky South American giants may weigh as much as 145 pounds (or occasionally even more) and may reach two feet in height at the shoulder and four and a half feet in length.
Capybaras are very social, semi-aquatic animals that live in groups and feed on plants. Although they often amble slowly over their grassy habitat, they can run fast when necessary. They are also excellent swimmers.
Researchers used to think that the animals were a type of pig. In fact, their scientific name (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) means "water pig." Scientists now know that capybaras are rodents and are related to guinea pigs.
The animals inhabit much of South America and part of Central America as well. They also live in zoos and wildlife parks around the world and are sometimes kept as exotic pets.
Capybaras belong to the mammal order known as the Rodentia. Other animals in this order include mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, squirrels, and beavers.
The Body of a Capybara
The capybara has a heavyset body with long and coarse red-brown, yellow-brown, or grey hair. Its long head has a blunt snout and small ears. The eyes are also small and are located high up on the head.
The animal has short legs. Its back legs are longer than its front ones, and its feet are slightly webbed. The feet leave star-shaped footprints in soft material like mud. The front feet have four toes while the back have only three. Capybaras walk, run, and swim with ease and sit like a dog.
A capybara appears to have no tail, but it actually has a tiny, rudimentary, and unmovable stub at the end of its body that is sometimes referred to as a tail.
Did You Know?
The name "capybara" comes from a word that means "master of the grasses" in the language of the Guarani people of South America.
Habitat and Diet
Capybaras inhabit forests and grassy areas near marshes, swamps, lakes, ponds, and rivers. Their eyes, ears, and nostrils are located near the top of their heads, which means that a capybara can be submerged in the water with just the top portion of its head showing. This allows it to breathe and survey the environment while most of its body is hidden under the water. Hippos in Africa have the same adaptation.
Capybaras can stay completely submerged in water for up to five minutes. The water provides food and also protection from danger. The animals are herbivores and eat grasses and aquatic plants, but they will also eat some fruits, grains, and reeds when the grass dries up. As they chew their food, they move their jaws from side to side instead of up and down like us.
Capybaras usually live in groups of ten to thirty animals, although solitary animals have been observed. A dominant male heads the group, which consists of females, babies, and younger males.
The group generally grazes in the morning and evening but sometimes feeds at night instead in order to avoid predation. The animals spend the hottest part of the day in water or mud.
Groups may enlarge to about a hundred animals when capybaras are gathering around a water source during the dry season. A group's home range is about fifty acres in area and partially overlaps the ranges of other groups.
Capybaras vocalize frequently and make a wide range of sounds. They bark when danger approaches to warn their group and to scare predators away. The bark sounds quite similar to a dog's bark. The animals also communicate with each other with whistles, chirps, squeals, clicks, purrs, growls, and grunts. One capybara owner likened a sound made by her pet to that of a Geiger counter
Communication is especially important between a mother and her babies. Both the mother and the youngsters vocalize to keep in contact within their group, especially when the group is moving. Babies may vocalize almost continuously.
A dominant male growls and chases other animals to maintain his position as the leader of his group. Observers say that serious fights between the rodents are rare, however.
Communicating by Smell
Capybaras communicate via their sense of smell in addition to making sounds. Males and females have a scent gland called a morillo on the upper part of their snouts. Males have larger morillos than females. The dominant male rubs his morillo over grass, releasing a sticky white fluid that is scented and marks the group's territory. The animal's anal glands also release a scented substance.
Other individuals besides the dominant male release scented secretions for communication. Males usually scent mark more frequently than females, however. In addition, they appear to mark with urine more often than females.
Capybaras often mate in the water. Two to eight babies are born after a gestation period of about 130 to 150 days. The babies start to eat grass when they are only a few days old and are weaned at about sixteen weeks of age. They congregate in a creche and may obtain milk from other nursing females in addition to their own mother. The group as a whole guards the babies from danger.
A female generally has one litter a year but may occasionally have two. In captivity, capybaras live up to twelve years. In the wild, their lives are usually much shorter due to predation.
Keep in Mind
In some places it's legal to keep capybaras as pets, but in others it's illegal. Anyone interested in getting a capybara as a pet should check their local rules carefully.
Capybaras are often (but not always) gentle and peaceful in captivity and will often (but not always) let humans pet them. Many seem to enjoy being stroked. As with any exotic animal purchased from a breeder, however, it's important to remember that an exotic animal isn't a domesticated one. True domestication requires many years of selective breeding.
There are some wonderful photos and videos of pet capybaras on the Internet. The pets seem to enjoy swimming in backyard pools, going for walks with a harness and leash, and even lying on sofas. Owners say that the animals are intelligent and trainable, like Caplin Rous in the video above. The animals shouldn't be thought of as giant guinea pigs, however. Taking care of an exotic pet and keeping it happy are major undertakings.
In the wild, capybaras are social animals. Their day is spent interacting with other animals as well as feeding. It's unnatural for them to live alone. If they are in this situation in captivity, they will need a lot of human attention. The best situation for captive animals is to live in a small group of capybaras. It's essential that the captive animals have a place to swim since they are semi-aquatic.
An important consideration for a prospective capybara owner in veterinary care as exotic animals generally require treatment from specialty veterinarians or from general ones with experience in treating their species. Finding a suitable vet within a reasonable distance from the home may be a challenge.
Owning an Exotic Pet
Many generations of selective breeding are necessary in order to domesticate a wild animal. Anyone thinking of owning an exotic pet needs to keep this in mind. Exotic pets are not domesticated and require special attention in order to keep them happy and healthy and in order to keep humans safe.
The capybaras shown in this article appear to be docile and even friendly. Some online videos show the rodents playing with other pets and apparently enjoying the company of humans. In some of the photos and videos that I've seen, the animals seem to be showing affection towards their owners.
Even a previously calm capybara may sometimes exhibit an aggressive behaviour, however. This is likely not so much a problem with the animal as with our lack of knowledge about its needs according to its gender and life stage. The consensus of pet owners seems to be that capybaras are not aggressive by nature but may be so if we act inappropriately towards them (according to their standards).
Even though the rodents are bred in captivity, they are still very much wild animals. It should always be remembered that they are capable of biting hard.
Other Interesting Capybara Facts
- As in other rodents, the front teeth or incisors of a capybara never stop growing. The teeth are generally worn down by the tough grasses that the animal eats.
- Capybaras are coprophagous, which means that they eat their feces. This behaviour enables them to obtain extra nutrients and beneficial bacteria. (House training a pet capybara is a major topic of its own. Pet owners say that it can be done.)
- Like a cow, the rodents often regurgitate food to chew it again. They are only distantly related to cows, however.
- In some parts of South America, the animals are farmed for their meat or skin. This has the advantage of protecting the wild population from hunting.
- In Venezuela, capybara meat is eaten during Lent. In previous centuries, the animals were classified as fish by the Vatican because they spent most of their time in water. Therefore they could be eaten during Lent when meat was forbidden.
- Unlike many other rodents, capybaras can't hold food with their front feet.
- In some areas of the United States, the animals may be seen in the wild. The wild population is believed to have originated from escaped pets.
The capybara has a relative (Hydrochoerus isthmius), which is known as the lesser capybara. This animal lives in a small area in the northwestern part of South America.
Capybaras have many predators, including anacondas, caiman, eagles, and wild cats (puma, ocelot, and jaguar). They are also hunted by humans for their meat and skins. The skin is used to make leather, and the fat under the skin is used to make medicinal drugs.
Although the capybara groups in some areas are under pressure from hunting, at the moment the population as a whole isn't endangered. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) maintains a "Red List of Threatened Species." In this list, animals are classified into one of nine categories based on their population status. The IUCN has placed capybaras in the Least Concern category of the Red List.
As is the case with all animals that share the earth with us, we mustn't become complacent about the population status of capybaras. Although the idea of keeping one as a pet may be appealing for some people, the status of the wild population shouldn't be forgotten.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Linda Crampton