Capybaras belong to the Cavi family of rodents, who live in South America. They are found throughout this continent, with the exception of Chile. Indeed, humans have taken Capybaras to other parts of the world and the escapees have successfully formed colonies in such exotic locations as Trindad, Florida and California (they’ve got good taste!)
There are two species: Capybaras (straightforward enough) and Lesser Capybaras (which look very similar, but as the name suggests, are a little smaller).
Capybaras can boast that they are the largest living rodent in the world – ranging from 106-134 cm (41-53 inches) in length, standing at approx. 56cm (22 inches) tall and tipping the scales at 35-66 kgs (77 to 145lbs). They have a compact, heavy, barrel shaped body, short stout head, longer back legs and sturdy front legs. Females weigh a little more than the males – so male capybaras must prefer their ladies on the curvaceous side – shake that booty girls!
Despite their size, they are very agile on land and are also excellent swimmers, which is a great help when you’re trying to evade those pesky predators, which include eagles, anacondas and wild cats (such as jaguars and pumas) – eek!
Capybaras are plant eaters, preferring to munch on aquatic grasses, as well as fruit and tree bark – they are quite picky about their food, favouring only the choicest shoots from their favourite species of plants. Their teeth grow continuously, so they need to make sure they keep right on chewing to keep them in shape – in fact they are known to chew the cud like cows. They also have a less appealing item on their diet – consumption of their own waste – apparently this helps them to maintain a healthy level of gut fauna – nice!
Their average life expectancy is around 4 years in the wild, but this can double in captivity. They adapt to varying conditions well – a few are kept as pets, although this is largely discouraged – despite them having a docile nature – petting isn’t recommended as they do carry ticks that can transmit diseases to humans. Although they do look sooo cute, don’t they?!
Their official scientific name comes from Greek hydro (water) choiros (hog) – not the most flattering of terms, but they do like to dip their toes into the wet stuff, being a semi aquatic mammal.
They are sometimes hunted by humans for meat and fur and because they come into conflict with ranchers – but they are rapid breeders and therefore are not considered endangered as a species.
Capybaras are a friendly, sociable, good natured bunch – but don’t let that fool you into thinking that they might be a bit slow – oh no, they are intelligent and emotionally complex critters.
Surprisingly, Capybaras are known as nature’s moving chairs, with other creatures taking a weight off by hitching a ride on their backs – these free riders include monkeys, rabbits and birds.
Capybaras prefer to live in groups of around 15 individuals on average, however, groups tend to come together and grow in size in the dry season, as tougher conditions bring them into closer proximity. A group of capybaras is called a meditation – because they are so chilled out!
Indeed, Capybaras can cover the ground and have on average 25 acres as part of their home territory, which, as mentioned, they are happy to share with other Capybara groups. Their preference is for dense forested areas around lakes and rivers, where they can indulge their passion for a swim –amazingly, they can hold their breath for 5 minutes underwater! In fact, they like water so much that they have a nifty trick of being able to take a snooze in it, keeping their noses just high enough to breath – no snorkel required for these guys!
They like to scent mark and this helps establish their territories and also find suitable partners during the mating season. The females do the choosing (look out boys!) and although groups have dominant males, subordinate males are known to have the odd sneaky assignation and get in on the action too!
Gestation is just shy of 4 months and litters are around 4 babies on average. The young can eat grass almost straightaway but are not fully weened until 4 months old, continuing to suckle during this period to supplement their diet –they will suckle from any females in the group, who are all happy to help out.
Although capybaras are hydrophiles, their young do take a few months to become able swimmers and spend their early life hidden in undergrowth near the water’s edge, where the females in the group can keep a close eye on them (you’re being watched kids!)
When these chaps are happy they make soft, chuckling sounds; they can also bark, similar to dogs, when calling to their young or when sensing danger. In fact, each group has its own “accent” with vocal sounds being unique to individuals.
Capybaras are unusual in the world of rodents in that their sweat glands are mainly found in hairy parts of their skin; whereas rodents usually tend to have these on the soles of their feet and in their armpits and groins. They feel the heat as they are able to get sunburnt due to a relatively thin coat, which might be another reason for their preference for a cool dip!
Capybaras – laid back, bright friendly and cute – a winning combination.