Capybaras: Giant Rodents of South America and Exotic Pets

Updated on November 9, 2017
AliciaC profile image

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

A capybara in the Prague Zoo
A capybara in the Prague Zoo | Source

The Largest Rodent in the World

Capybaras are the largest rodents in the world. These 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 capybaras 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.

Capybaras 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.

A capybara at Nagasaki Bio Park
A capybara at Nagasaki Bio Park | Source

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 legs 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.

Capybaras in the Wild

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 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. Capybaras 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 | Source

Capybara 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.

Capybaras and Pups in a Wildlife Park

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. Capybaras 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 capybaras are rare, however.

Vocalizing Capybaras

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 capybara'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.

A Friendly Capybara Enjoys a Stroke

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. The baby capybaras 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 capybara 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.

Caplin Rous Begs for a Popsicle

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

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.

Baby Capybaras Play in a Swimming Pool

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. There are online videos that show capybaras playing with other pets and apparently enjoying the company of humans. In some 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 capybaras are bred in captivity, they are still very much wild animals. It should always be remembered that they are capable of biting hard.

Romeo and Tuff'n Go Shopping

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, capybaras often regurgitate food to chew it again. They are only distantly related to cows, however.
  • In some parts of South America, capybaras 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, capybaras were classified as fish by the Vatican because they spent most of their time in water. Therefore the animals could be eaten during Lent when meat was forbidden.
  • Unlike many other rodents, capybaras can't hold food with their front feet.

Gari Finds a New Home

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 having a pet capybara may be appealing for some people, the status of the wild population shouldn't be forgotten.

References

Capybara facts from the San Diego Zoo

Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris information from Wildscreen Arkive

Information about the capybara from the IUCN Red List

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Linda Crampton

    Comments

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • Moon Daisy profile image

        Moon Daisy 

        7 months ago from London

        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!!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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.

      • profile image

        Moses 

        7 months ago

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • profile image

        jumpup 

        3 years ago

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        4 years ago from San Diego California

        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!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • Elias Zanetti profile image

        Elias Zanetti 

        4 years ago from Athens, Greece

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        Moon Daisy 

        4 years ago from London

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        suziecat7 

        4 years ago from Asheville, NC

        What a cool animal. I want one :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • profile image

        Big M 

        6 years ago

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        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 profile image

        Eiddwen 

        6 years ago from Wales

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • b. Malin profile image

        b. Malin 

        6 years ago

        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!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • carriethomson profile image

        carriethomson 

        6 years ago from United Kingdom

        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 profile image

        Movie Master 

        6 years ago from United Kingdom

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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • thougtforce profile image

        Christina Lornemark 

        6 years ago from Sweden

        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

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        6 years ago from south Florida

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • CMHypno profile image

        CMHypno 

        6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

        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.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        6 years ago from Houston, Texas

        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!

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