The Agouti and the Paca: Rodents of South America

Updated on August 15, 2019
AliciaC profile image

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

An agouti in Panama
An agouti in Panama | Source

Rainforest Rodents

Agoutis and pacas are interesting, rabbit-sized rodents that live in the rainforests of Central and South America and forage on the forest floor. Agoutis weigh up to nine pounds. They're famous for being the only mammal that can open the hard fruit of the Brazil nut tree without a tool. They are sometimes kept as exotic pets. Pacas are stockier animals than agoutis and may weigh as much as twenty-six pounds. They are rarely kept as pets. Sometimes the animals are confused, and the agouti is incorrectly referred to as a paca.

At one time agoutis and pacas were thought to be closely related. The two animals do have a somewhat similar appearance. They each have a long head with small ears, a rump that is higher than the front part of their body, back legs that are longer than the front legs, and a tiny, almost invisible tail. Today biologists know that there are important anatomical differences between the two animals and that they are not as closely related as was once thought.

An Azara's agouti, or Dasyprocta azarae
An Azara's agouti, or Dasyprocta azarae | Source

The Agouti

There are eleven species of agouti, all belonging to the genus Dasyprocta. They have a widespread distribution in Central and South America. Their coat has a range of colors and may be black, brown, red-brown, or orange-brown. The coat sometimes has a speckled or grizzled appearance due to the presence of multicolored hairs. The tail is short and hairless.

The agouti's hair is coarse and is longest at the back of the body over the rump. The hairs are covered with an oily substance that helps to waterproof the animal. This oil often gives the coat a glossy appearance. The animals are good swimmers and sometimes enter water to escape from danger.

An agouti has long legs. It moves on its toes rather than its whole feet and walks, trots, gallops, and jumps. The animal can move very fast when necessary. It's also agile and can jump as high as six feet from a standing position.

When it feeds, an agouti often sits on its hind legs and holds its food with its front paws, as shown in the photo at the start of this article. Agoutis have five toes on each of their front feet and three on each of their back ones.

Agouti Diet

Agoutis spend the night in a hidden area such as a burrow or a tree hollow. During the day they search for food on the floor of the rainforest. They are often solitary animals, but some forage in small groups consisting of a mated pair and their offspring. The animals sometimes venture on to the savanna to eat. Unfortunately, they may also enter agricultural fields and feed on crops meant for human use.

An agouti's diet consists chiefly of fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, stems, roots, and tubers. They sometimes follow monkeys around, waiting for them to drop fruit from the tree canopy. Agoutis have occasionally been observed eating insects, shellfish, and eggs, making them omnivorous instead of strictly herbivorous.

Top left: the fruit of the Brazil nut tree; middle left: the fruit has been opened up to show the seeds (nuts) inside
Top left: the fruit of the Brazil nut tree; middle left: the fruit has been opened up to show the seeds (nuts) inside | Source

Did You Know?

"Brazil nuts" are actually the seeds of a fruit. Each seed has a hard coat, which is removed to extract the softer kernel inside. The kernel is the part that is eaten.

Agoutis and Brazil Nuts

Agoutis play an important role in the life of the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa). The tree grows in rainforests and may reach a height of a hundred and sixty feet. It drops its ripe fruits on to the forest floor. Each fruit weighs as much as five pounds and is about the size of a grapefruit.

The agouti is the only mammal known to be able to break open the hard shell of the fruit. The rodents have strong, sharp teeth that can quickly crack the shell, allowing them to reach the seeds inside. The seeds are commonly known as "Brazil nuts" when they're harvested and sold to the public.

The agouti often extracts more nuts than it can eat. It buries these for future use but doesn't always find them again. Some of the nuts that the animal misses grow into new trees. The agouti, therefore, helps the Brazil nut tree to reproduce. It plays a similar role in the lives of some other plants of the rainforest.


Agoutis maintain a territory. They mark this territory by releasing a smelly secretion from their anal glands and by depositing smelly urine and feces in strategic places. The animals actively defend their territories. A common vocalization made during defense is a barking sound. The animal's rump hair may become erect during territorial disputes, which makes it look bigger and more threatening than it really is. It also stamps its hind feet when it's tense.


Agoutis are monogamous. A male and a female bond permanently and share a territory. They generally sleep and forage separately, however. In at least some species, the male sprays the female with urine during courtship. The urine excites the female and causes her to perform a "frenzy dance." After being sprayed one or more times, she is usually ready to mate.

One to four babies are born after a gestation period of about three months. The babies are able to walk and run within an hour after their birth. Agoutis are long-lived animals and have survived for fifteen to twenty years in captivity.

Agoutis as Pets

Agoutis are sometimes kept as exotic pets. They are usually shy and nervous in the wild but may be outgoing and friendly when bred in captivity. They are interesting animals to observe and are often considered to be cute. There is at least one drawback to having an agouti as a pet, though—he or she may produce an unpleasant smell. The animal's anal glands release an odoriferous secretion that is used to communicate with other agoutis. The urine and feces may also be smelly, for the same reason.

A pet agouti should be bred in captivity and bought from a licensed breeder. This is important for two reasons. An animal born in captivity and used to humans from birth may be friendlier and more confident than one caught in the wild. In addition, breeding agoutis for the pet trade protects the wild populations. A prospective owner must find out if it's legal to own an agouti in their part of the world, however.

A New Pet in the Family

Before bringing a pet agouti into a family, a person should investigate the diet, housing, and exercise requirements of the animal as well as any potential health problems. The recommended type and size of enclosure, the best location for the enclosure, and essential items to put inside it should be explored. Like other rodents, agoutis are chewers, which should be kept in mind when building or buying an enclosure.

The owner needs to decide which areas the agouti is allowed to explore when it's outside its enclosure. This decision will likely be based on the animal's urination and defecation habits and on the extent to which it can be house trained. Potential dangers for the animal when it's out of its enclosure must also be considered. Harness training is essential for trips outside the home, since an agouti can move very fast and jump very high.

Exotic Pets

It should always be remembered that exotic pets aren't domesticated animals, even when they're bred in captivity. True domestication requires many generations of selective breeding. Agoutis need regular attention from their humans in order to maintain their confidence and friendliness around people and other animals. They are generally docile animals, but they do have strong teeth and jaws and could bite if frightened.

Another consideration is that it's unfair to purchase an agouti and then keep it alone in a small enclosure all the time. Like other pets, it needs interesting things to do. In captivity agoutis often have a long lifespan, so they are a long-term commitment.

A breeder or fellow agouti owners who are willing to offer advice after a pet is bought could be very helpful. It's important that the pet owner finds a vet with experience in treating agoutis.

A  lowland paca
A lowland paca | Source

The Paca

Two paca species exist: the lowland paca, or Cuniculus paca, and the mountain paca, or Cuniculus taczanowskii. As its name suggests, the mountain paca lives at higher elevations than the lowland species. The animals are generally more sedentary and slow-moving than agoutis. Pacas generally aren't kept as exotic pets, but the lowland species is present in some zoo collections. Wild pacas are caught for their meat, which is often considered to be a delicacy.

Lowland Paca

The lowland or spotted paca is widely distributed in Central and South America. It has a stockier body than the daintier agouti. The paca has a red brown to dark brown coat with several rows of white spots or stripes along its sides. Its undersurface is pale yellow. The head has a blunt snout and relatively large eyes. As in the agouti, the tail is barely visible. The legs are short. There are four toes on each of the front feet and five on each of the back ones.

Mountain Paca

The mountain paca is smaller than the lowland one. Its coat tends to be darker, and its undercoat is denser. Its fur is dark brown to black and is spotted like that of its lowland relative. The animal is found from Venezuela to Bolivia. The lowland paca is not in trouble, but the mountain paca is classified as near threatened.

The cheek bones of a paca are enlarged. This feature helps to create resonating chambers that make the animal's sounds louder.

The Life of a Paca


Like agoutis, pacas are usually solitary animals, but they may occasionally travel in small groups made of a mated pair and their youngsters. They are often nocturnal but are sometimes seen in the early morning and late evening.

Pacas build their burrow near a river or stream. They sometimes occupy and modify a burrow made by another animal instead of making a new one. The burrow has multiple entrances/exits. Emergency exits are usually disguised by a covering of leaves while the others are left open. Pacas are good swimmers and may enter the water when they feel threatened. Some actually mate in water.


The paca is mainly herbivorous, eating fruit, seeds, leaves, shoots, and roots, but it eats some insects as well. It generally doesn't hold its food in its front paws as an agouti does. The animal maintains a territory for feeding and breeding and defends this territory. When it's annoyed or threatened, it often produces a loud growl, which is amplified by its cheek chambers.

Paca Reproduction

Lowland pacas are known to be monogamous. As in the agouti, the male paca urinates on the female to reinforce the bond between the two animals and to stimulate the female to mate.

The gestation period in the paca is around a hundred and eighteen days. The animal generally has one baby per litter. The babies are born with fur and open eyes and can eat solid food by the end of their first day. The paca's lifespan seems to be about thirteen years in the wild.

Categorizing Animal Species in Trouble

The IUCN or International Union for Conservation of Nature has established a "Red List of Threatened Species." This is a list of nine categories representing the population status of organisms.

Listed below are the Red List categories from the least serious condition to the most serious one. The seriousness of the first two categories can't be evaluated, however, since insufficient data is available.

  • Not Evaluated (NE)
  • Data Deficient (DD)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Near Threatened (NT)
  • Vulnerable (VU)
  • Endangered (EN)
  • Critically Endangered (CR)
  • Extinct in the Wild (EW)
  • Extinct (EX)

The Red-Rumped or Brazilian Agouti (Dasyprocta leporina)

The State of Agouti and Paca Populations

Population Status

The eleven agouti and two paca species are classified in the Least Concern or Data Deficient categories in the IUCN Red List, with the exception of the following five species.

  • Orinoco agouti (Dasyprocta guamara): Near Threatened
  • Coiban agouti (D. coibae): Near Threatened
  • Ruatan Island (D. ruatanica): Endangered
  • Mexican agouti (D. mexicana): Critically Endangered
  • Mountain paca: (Cuniculus taczanowskii): Near Threatened


Major agouti and paca predators include ocelots, jaguars, and snakes, especially boa constrictors. Like many other species in trouble, however, some agouti and paca populations are experiencing problems due to human activities.

Loss of habitat and hunting can put severe pressure on a species, as in the case of the agouti and paca species listed above. Habitat loss as humans clear land for their own purpose is a serious problem for wildlife. Like pacas, agoutis are caught for their meat, and both animals are sometimes killed as agricultural pests. Careful planning and action are needed to protect the animals and to ensure that all of the species survive.


Agouti information (Dasyprocta sp.) from the San Diego Zoo

Facts about the red-rumpled agouti from the Smithsonian National Zoo

Lowland paca information from University College London

Mountain paca facts and status from the IUCN

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

    © 2013 Linda Crampton


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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Melissa. It must be interesting to have a paca as a pet.

      • Melissa A Smith profile image

        Melissa A Smith 

        9 months ago from New York

        Pacas are kept as pets. I have one.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the idea.

      • profile image


        2 years ago

        you should do an article on muntjac

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Yes, agoutis are cute animals. They're interesting, too. Thanks for the visit.

      • ologsinquito profile image


        5 years ago from USA

        The agoutis are really cute. I can see why someone might want to have this sort of exotic pet.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, oldiesmusic. Thanks for the visit and the comment. I think that the South American rodents are all very interesting animals. It's fun to learn about them!

      • oldiesmusic profile image


        6 years ago from United States

        Very interesting article about the agouti and paca. The only other rodent native to South America that I already know is the biggest one, the capybara. Nice to know their way of life and diet.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit, Dianna. I appreciate your comment and vote!

      • teaches12345 profile image

        Dianna Mendez 

        6 years ago

        Alicia, you have me a little bit uneasy seeing these rodents. I am not fond of them as they tend to be a nuisance around here. Great article though and very interesting. Voted up++

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit and the votes, Crystal. As I said to Bill, thanks for reading the hub when you don't like rodents!

      • Crystal Tatum profile image

        Crystal Tatum 

        6 years ago from Georgia

        I'm with Bill. I'll read about them, but really don't want to encounter any! Voted up and interesting.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the comment and the vote, Prasetio, I appreciate your visit!

      • prasetio30 profile image


        6 years ago from malang-indonesia

        I had never heard about this animal. Thanks for writing and sharing with us. I really enjoy the pictures and the video as well. VOTED UP :-)


      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for the visit and the comment, Deb!

      • aviannovice profile image

        Deb Hirt 

        6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

        This was fascinating to me. I had never heard of either of these animals, so the videos were the icing on the cake. Excellent work!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much, Elias. I appreciate the comment!

      • Elias Zanetti profile image

        Elias Zanetti 

        6 years ago from Athens, Greece

        Wonderful and informative hub about these sweet rodents Alicia!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment and the visit, Eddy.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, DDE. I appreciate your comment and votes.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the comment and the votes, FlourishAnyway. Yes, having a pet agouti that marks with its anal gland could be an interesting - and problematic - situation!

      • Eiddwen profile image


        6 years ago from Wales

        Another wonderful lesson on nature's gems.


      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        An interesting, informative and well approached hub on Rodents of South America - The Agouti and the Paca voted up and useful. Great photos and well researched.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        6 years ago from USA

        Alicia - These are most unusual critters which I have never heard of. I enjoyed learning about their habits; that anal gland thing is a deal breaker as far as the pet thing goes, however! Yikes. Interesting element regarding the brazil nut, too. Voted up and more!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for the visit and the comment, Benjamin. South America is an interesting place! I would love to see agoutis and pacas in their natural environment.

      • profile image

        Benjamin Chege 

        6 years ago

        Hi AliciaC. The Agouti is so beautiful. I would want to see it at close range. I like the way the agouti looks like a rabbit and at the same time a big rat. South America will be my next tourist destination, I see there are a lot of natural creatures that I may never see here in Africa. Lovely pictures too. Thanks for the information.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, drbj. Thank you very much for the kind comment! The agouti and the paca do have a weird aspect to them, especially with respect to their reproduction. They are interesting animals.

      • drbj profile image

        drbj and sherry 

        6 years ago from south Florida

        The agouti and the paca are two of the 'cuter'-looking rodents that exist. Thanks for this stellar intro to them, Alicia, and your fascinating prose, images and videos. Since somewhat weird animals do fascinate me, I found all this most admirable. Thank you, m'dear.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Mel. The size range of rodents is interesting. I imagine most people think of small, mouse or rat-sized creatures when they hear the word "rodent", but rodents can be much bigger than this!

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        6 years ago from San Diego California

        Their evolutionary course in South America seems to have run amok, because they have some real monster-size rodents there. I'm going to read your capybara hub immediately.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Mel. Yes, the capybara is a very interesting rodent. I've written a hub about it. Rodents are fascinating animals! Thanks for the comment.

      • Mel Carriere profile image

        Mel Carriere 

        6 years ago from San Diego California

        I always enjoy a natural history lesson. South America has some fascinating rodents. Isn't there one called the Capybara, or something like that, that inhabits the wetlands of Venezuela, I think? Great hub!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment and for trying to share my hub, Faith. I appreciate your visit and your efforts! Hugs and best wishes to you, too.

      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 

        6 years ago from southern USA

        Well, I have been trying to pin and tweet and it keeps saying "whoops" so I will come back after a bit and try to share again.

      • Faith Reaper profile image

        Faith Reaper 

        6 years ago from southern USA

        Hi Alicia, another fascinating hub here! I, too, have never heard of either the Paca or the Agouti. You write the most interesting hubs of most interesting creatures on this planet. I am sure there are many I have yet to know of, and most likely you will write of here.

        Thank you for educating us.

        Up and more and sharing


        Faith Reaper

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Nell. If I didn't already have a house full of other pets I would love to have a rat in the family. I love their reputation for being intelligent and affectionate. Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, Nell!

      • Nell Rose profile image

        Nell Rose 

        6 years ago from England

        Hi Alicia, this was fascinating. I had never heard of the Agouti before, so this was totally new to me. I love all animals and these are really cute. I don't mind rodents, in fact I used to keep 'fancy rats' as they call them over here, the household ones, and they are so intelligent, its amazing. Wonderful hub! voted up and shared, nell

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bill. I suspect that quite a few people share your feelings! I like rodents and find them very interesting. Of course, I'm not happy when they transmit disease or create other problems, but there are many rodents that don't hurt us. Some make lovely pets, too. Thanks for reading and commenting, especially when you don't like rodents!

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        6 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I don't know why but rodents gross me out. Always have and I expect they always will. :) Interesting article but gave me shivers. LOL

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bill. Yes, they are cute animals, especially the agouti. Life on Earth is fascinating! Thank you very much for the vote and the shares. Have a great weekend too, Bill!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Cynthia. Thanks for the visit and the comment. It is amazing to discover how many animals share the world with us!

      • bdegiulio profile image

        Bill De Giulio 

        6 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Linda. How interesting. I don't believe that I've heard of either the Paca or the Agouti. They sure are cute little animals. Thanks for the education. It just amazes me how many amazing species there are in the world. Voted up, shared, pinned, etc... Have a great weekend.

      • CMHypno profile image


        6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

        Very interesting hub on paca and agouti Alicia. There are so many fascinating animals out there, so thank you for finding two more and giving so much information


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