Capybaras: Giant Rodents of South America and Exotic Pets - PetHelpful - By fellow animal lovers and experts
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Capybaras: Giant Rodents of South America and Exotic Pets

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

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.

The Rodentia Order

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.

A capybara grazing at Shepreth Wildlife Park in the UK

A capybara grazing at Shepreth Wildlife Park in the UK

Social Groups

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.

Vocalizations

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.

Reproduction

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.

Exotic Pets

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 animals have a place to swim, since they are semi-aquatic.

An important consideration for a prospective capybara owner in veterinary care. 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.

Temperament

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. Though they often seem to be friendly, it should 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.

Population Status

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.

References

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.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 18, 2020:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information, Dr Mark. I'll read the article that you've mentioned.

Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on January 18, 2020:

This is a very well written article. Most of the things I see about capybaras on the internet gloss over the potential aggressions and only discuss how well they get along with other animals. They will bite, and will fight but usually oly with each other.

Here is a link you might want to read as I know you enjoy scientific papers. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278702053...

If it is too boring, be sure to check out section 14.2. It details some of the fighting and biting behaviors.

That video of the capybaras in the pool creeped me out. They defecate in the water as soon as they are comfortable, so I definitely would not want to take a bath with one of my capys!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 28, 2018:

Hi. The price of capybaras varies considerably. I don't know where you live, but I did a quick Internet search about the cost of one in the United States. One breeder was selling them for hundreds of dollars and another one for several thousand dollars. I think you need to look at more than the purchase price, though. You need to find a breeder who seems to care about their animals and who seems likely to help you if you need advice. You also need to remember that looking after a capybara involves expenses beyond the purchase price. Good luck with your search.

Lord Bilbastay on September 28, 2018:

I was just wondering how much a capybara should usually have because I'm looking into buying one for a pet. Please get back to me

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 28, 2017:

What a lovely experience! Thank you for sharing it, Moon Daisy.

Moon Daisy from London on November 28, 2017:

Earlier in the comments I said how I'd like to meet a capybara, since I've loved them for a long time. Well I met one! We were at a zoo recently looking at their only capybara, and my husband told the keeper how much i love them. And he let me go in the enclosure! He wouldn't let me stroke him as he couldn't guarantee my safety, (although I'm certain I would've been fine), but I got pretty close, and we had a good conversation. He was lovely and it was amazing!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 26, 2017:

I don't know where you can find a capybara breeder in your part of the world, Moses. The animal might do okay is specific parts of the continent, but many areas would be inhospitable for it.

Moses on November 26, 2017:

what a smart animal . where can I get one,? Will it survive in Africa,

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 27, 2015:

Thanks for sharing the information, jumpup. I'd actually like to keep capybaras alive, though!

jumpup on May 27, 2015:

They are good eating. We used to eat these in the 1970s.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 29, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment, Mel. Capybaras do seem like nice animals. I wouldn't want to eat one, either!

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on September 29, 2013:

As a Catholic, I am thrilled that this Lent I can supplement my dull fish diet with Capybara! Just joking, of course. They look like very gentle creatures and I wouldn't want to harm one. Great hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 23, 2013:

Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the pin, Elias! I appreciate your visit.

Elias Zanetti from Athens, Greece on September 23, 2013:

Such a sweet and funny creature Alicia! Another great hub and a well written and informative introduction to an animal. Voted and pinned!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2013:

Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Moon Daisy! I feel the same way as you. I'd love to get to know a capybara and stroke him or her, but I wouldn't want to have one as a pet. I don't have the facilities to take care of a capybara's needs, and since I already have pets I don't have the time to look after a capybara, either.

Moon Daisy from London on September 22, 2013:

I have loved capybaras for a long time, so it's lovely to come across your hub. I first saw these interesting creatures in a zoo and wanted one ever since. Ok, I wouldn't really have one as a pet! But I would be happy meeting one properly one day and stroking it.

Great hub, really nice and detailed.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 22, 2013:

I agree - capybaras are cool! I wouldn't want one for a pet, but I'd love to meet one. Thanks for the visit, suziecat7.

suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on September 22, 2013:

What a cool animal. I want one :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 24, 2012:

Hi, Big M. Thank you for commenting. Good luck with your school project.

Big M on February 24, 2012:

this imformation was ok. some i already knew. i am going to use this info in a school project on the capybara.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 03, 2011:

Thank you again for all your comments and votes, Eiddwen! The capybara is another animal that I find very interesting. They are such big animals compared to most other rodents.

Eiddwen from Wales on October 03, 2011:

Thank you again for info on this Capybaras,another new one for me to enjoy ,and I vote them all up; awesome/beautiful/interesting and useful here.

Take care

Eiddwen.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 24, 2011:

Thanks for the visit and the funny comment, b. Malin!

b. Malin on August 24, 2011:

What A Great Pet Alicia. It Sings, Eats it's own Feces...so there's no Clean Up...And if you get tired of it, You can Eat it for Dinner...I'm Sold! Seriously, very Interesting Hub on Capybaras...Who knew!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 24, 2011:

Thank you, carriethomson. Capybaras are certainly large! It's strange to think that they are related to guinea pigs.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 24, 2011:

Hi, Movie Master. Thank you for visiting my hub and for the comment.

carriethomson from United Kingdom on August 24, 2011:

Hi alicia! very intresting hub!! these capybaras seem to be intresting too!! very large rhodents and they are feeding on grass. amusing and intresting

carrie

Movie Master from United Kingdom on August 24, 2011:

Hi Alicia, I enjoyed reading about capybaras, I knew nothing about them, thank you for sharing such an interesting hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 21, 2011:

Hi, Tina. I agree - capybaras are not bred to be pets and should stay in their natural habitat. Thanks a lot for the comment.

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on August 21, 2011:

I have only seen them on TV before, never in reality. They look rather cute but I believe that all exotic animals should be living wild in nature. Thanks for this interesting and well written hub Alica, I now know much more about these interesting animals!

Tina

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 20, 2011:

Thank you very much for the visit and the great comment, drbj! I agree with you - capybaras are fascinating animals.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on August 20, 2011:

Capybaras are fascinating animals, Alicia, and you have written about them in a very interesting way. Thanks for this exceptional and well-written hub about these creatures.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 20, 2011:

Hi, CMHyno. It's strange how humans are inadvertently populating countries with animals that wouldn't normally live there! Thanks for the comment.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on August 20, 2011:

Strangely enough there used to be a couple of capybaras in the park near where I lived in North London, along with some wallabies and emus??? Thanks for a very interesting and informative hub, Alicia.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 19, 2011:

Thank you very much, Peggy W. I appreciate the comment and the votes. I enjoyed writing about capybaras - they're interesting animals.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 19, 2011:

Great article about capybaras. I have only seen them in zoo settings. Enjoyed learning more about them and the videos were great. Up, useful and interesting votes!