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Rodents of South America: The Agouti and the Paca

Updated on July 9, 2016
AliciaC profile image

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

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.

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.

Wild Agoutis

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.

Agoutis 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 follows 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

"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.

An Adult Agouti in an Animal Sanctuary

Territories

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. Agoutis 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.

Reproduction

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.

A Baby Agouti in a Zoo

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 agouti's anal glands release a smelly 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.

A Young Pet Agouti Playing

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.

Alice the Agouti Enjoys a Meal

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

There are two paca species: 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.

Pacas at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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

Burrows

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, however. The paca's 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 pacas actually mate in water.

Foraging

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. A paca maintains a territory for feeding and breeding and defends this territory. When it's annoyed or threatened, the animal often produces a loud growl, which is amplified by its cheek chambers.

A Nocturnal Paca in the Wild

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. Pacas generally have 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.

A Lowland Paca in a Zoo

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 Brazilian Agouti

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 these five species.

  • Orinoco agouti: Near Threatened
  • Coiban agouti: Vulnerable
  • Ruatan Island agouti: Endangered
  • Mexican agouti: Critically Endangered
  • Mountain paca: Near Threatened

Threats

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 agoutis and pacas and to ensure that all the species survive.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 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

      oldiesmusic 4 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 4 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 :-)

      Prasetio

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit and the comment, Deb!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 4 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Wonderful and informative hub about these sweet rodents Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and the visit, Eddy.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 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

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Another wonderful lesson on nature's gems.

      Eddy.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 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

      FlourishAnyway 4 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 image
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      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 4 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

      Hugs,

      Faith Reaper

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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 image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 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 image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 4 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 4 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

      CMHypno 4 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