Capybara Facts

Scientific Name: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris

The capybara is a large South American rodent.
The capybara is a large South American rodent.

Volga2012, Getty Images

The capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is the largest rodent in the world. Its common name comes from the Tupi phrase ka'apiûara, which means "grass eater." The scientific name means "water hog." Capybaras are related to guinea pigs, rock cavies, coypu, and chinchillas.

Fast Facts: Capybara

  • Scientific Name: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris
  • Common Names: Capybara, chigüire, chigüiro, carpincho, water hog
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 3.5-4.4 feet
  • Weight: 77-146 pounds
  • Lifespan: 4 years
  • Diet: Herbivore
  • Habitat: Wetlands of South America
  • Population: Abundant
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Description

The capybara has a barrel-shaped body and blunt muzzle, somewhat resembling a pig. The brittle fur is reddish-brownish in color and paler on the belly. The animal's ears, eyes, and nose are high on its face so it can remain above water when the rodent is submerged. The capybara has a vestigial tail and partially webbed feet.

On average, adult capybaras are 3.5 to 4.4 feet in length, stand about two feet tall, and weigh between 77 and 146 pounds. Females are slightly larger than males, with the largest recorded female weighing just over 200 pounds.

Both males and females have anal scent glands and a special snout scent gland, called a morillo.

The morillo is a distinctive feature of a capybara's face.
The morillo is a distinctive feature of a capybara's face. Richard Evans / EyeEm, Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

All South American countries except Chile are home to capybaras. The animals live in wetlands and near bodies of water. Escaped captive capybaras are found in Florida, but it's unknown whether they have established a breeding population.

Diet

Capybaras are herbivores that graze upon grasses, fruit, tree bark, and aquatic plants. They eat their own feces and regurgitated food to help digest cellulose and retain gut flora. Their teeth grow continuously to compensate for the wear from grinding food.

Behavior

Although capybaras are excellent swimmers, they are able to run as fast as a horse on land. During the day, the rodents wallow in mud to stay cool. They graze before dawn, late in the afternoon, and into the evening. They often sleep in water with only their noses exposed to air.

Capybaras use their scent glands and urine to mark territory. Females scent-mark areas more often during the mating season. Males mark females as well as objects.

Reproduction and Offspring

Capybaras live in herds of up to twenty individuals. Within the group, there is one dominant males, additional submissive males, females, and young. The dominant male has breeding rights to all of the females, but he can't oversee them all the time, so many of the submissive males also mate.

Mating occurs once a year during the rainy season, which may be in April or May (Venezuela) or October or November (Brazil). A female's scent changes when she is in estrus, plus she whistles through her nose to advertise fertility. Males pursue females and mate with them in the water.

After 130 to 150 days of gestation, the female gives birth on land to a litter of one to eight young. The average litter size is four offspring. Baby capybaras are mobile, and they typically resemble their parents. The female and her young return to the water within a few hours of birth. The young may nurse from any female in the group. They start to eat grass after a week and are weaned around 16 weeks.

Capybaras become sexually mature between one and two years of age. Young males often leave the herd when mature. Captive capybaras may live 8 to 10 years. Wild animals only live four years on average because they are popular prey for anacondas, jaguars, eagles, caimans, pumas, ocelots, and humans.

Capybara young are miniature versions of their parents.
Capybara young are miniature versions of their parents. Kevin Schafer, Getty Images

Conservation Status

Capybara conservation status is classified as "least concern" by the IUCN. The species is widely distributed and reproduces quickly. In some areas, hunting has diminished capybara numbers, but for the most part the population is stable and abundant.

Capybaras and Humans

Capybaras are hunted primarily for their meat and skin, although there is also a market for their fat, which is believed to have medicinal value. Ranchers sometimes kill the rodents because they compete with livestock for grazing. Capys are also farmed and kept in zoos. In some places, it is legal to keep a capybara as a pet. The animals are gentle and tolerate hand-feeding and petting.

Sources

  • Macdonald, D. W.; Krantz, K.; Aplin, R. T. "Behavioral anatomical and chemical aspects of scent marking among Capybaras (Hydrochaeris hypdrochaeris) (Rodentia: Caviomorpha)". Journal of Zoology. 202 (3): 341–360, 1984. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.1984.tb05087.x
  • Murphey, R.; Mariano, J.; Mouraduarte, F. "Behavioral observations in a capybara colony (Hydrochaeris hypdrochaeris)". Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 14: 89, 1985. doi:10.1016/0168-1591(85)90040-1
  • Reid, F. "Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. 2016: e.T10300A22190005. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T10300A22190005.en
  • Woods, C.A. and C.W. Kilpatrick. "Infraorder Hystricognathi". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 1556, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.