Capybara, King of Keeping it Cool

Behold, the capybara.

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The pride of South America. These guys may look like a strange combination of a horse and a guinea pig, but in reality they are the world’s largest rodent.

These aren’t the kind of rodents you’d want to call an exterminator for though. Capybaras are the gentle giants of the rodent world and have even been semi-domesticated in certain areas, according to Animals.net (https://animals.net/capybara/).

Their resemblance to guinea pigs is no coincidence either. They are closely related to the humble guinea pig and others in the cavy family.

Anatomy

Don’t let the fact that this rodent is the size of a small dog scare you away. Coming in at two feet tall and up to 170 pounds, capybaras are surprisingly docile, according to the Rainforest Alliance (https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/species/capybara).

Capybaras have light brown fur that is long and coarse and a face that resembles a beaver’s. With a barrel-shaped body and short legs, these stout little guys are hardy, durable, and ready for anything.

Water Hogs

Spoiler alert: capybaras LOVE water. These guys are crazy about it. Like me, their skin requires moisturization on a daily basis. Capybaras can even hold their breath for up to five minutes to avoid predators!

Much like the mighty hippo, a capybara’s eyes, nose and ears are all situated on the top of its head. This allows them to lift just those features out of the water to get the lay of the land while remaining undetected, then stealthily resubmerge to safety (https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/capybara).

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Their webbed feet make them superb swimmers and allow them to spend a significant amount of time in the water. These critters will stay in the water all day if the mood strikes — wallowing in shallow water and mud to cool off during the day before venturing out at dusk to graze.

Habitat

Capybaras, like all members of the cavy family, are native to South America. They’re found east of the Andes in all South American countries except Chile.

As mentioned above, these rodents are wild about water. They need water to keep their dry skin moist and are exclusively found on riverbanks, beside lakes and ponds, in estuaries, or in marshy and swampy areas, according to LiveScience (https://www.livescience.com/55223-capybara-facts.html).

They will sleep in the densely vegetated areas on the water’s edge, and are even known to take naps right in the water.

Diet

Like other rodents, their front teeth never stop growing. Ever.

This trait is very useful for these guys because it turns out gnawing on plant material your whole life will grind down your teeth pretty quickly.

Capybaras are herbivores, meaning they only eat plant material. Their favorite foods are aquatic plants and grass: an adult capybara can put away 6–8 pounds of grass per day.

During the dry season when the grasses dry up, capybaras feast on a wide variety of other foods, like reeds, seeds, berries, grains, squashes, melons, and tree bark. But like us, capybaras can be fickle: these massive rodents tend to be very selective, and will usually feed on one specific plant, depending on the animal and location.

Autoca-what?

From Animals.net: “Capybaras are autocaprophagous, which means that they eat their own poop! This behavior helps them fully digest the hard-to-break down cellulose molecules in their diet. It also gives their natural bacterial gut flora a boost, helping maintain their immune system” (https://animals.net/capybara/).

Yep. These crazy rodents eat their own feces. The helpful bacteria in their last meal helps break down the tough fibers in their most recent meal. Isn’t nature beautiful?

Behavior

Capybaras are highly social creatures with tight-knit family units. A typical capybara family consists of around 10 of these big rodents: one dominant male, one or more females, a few subordinate males, and several youngsters.

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During the wet season, a group can contain up to 40 members. The extra sets of eyes help watch out for the young, who can easily fall prey to caiman or other predators.

Capybaras are very vocal creatures. They use all kinds of whistles, purrs, barks and chirps to communicate.

Have I mentioned they love swimming? These water pigs spend a lot of time submerged, and will quickly disappear underwater to escape predators.

Threats

So what do Capybaras have to be scared of?

Their native predators include jaguars, caimans and anacondas, while the young are especially vulnerable to ocelots and harpy eagles, according to the Rainforest Alliance.

According to the IUCN, capybaras are in the Least Concern category (https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/10300/22190005). While their wild populations are stable now, they are still threatened by deforestation and illegal poaching.

Several South American states have started farming capybaras for their hides and meat as part of a mammal management plan. This takes the strain off of the wild populations and their habitat.

Conclusion

The capybara is awesome. The world’s largest rodent is semi-aquatic, can hold its breath for five mintues, and eats its own poop. Their strong social groups help them survive against predators.

Capybaras may not be endangered, but their habitat is. The Amazon continues to be deforested at an astonishing rate. Consider donating to one of these organizations that are helping to preserve the Amazon rainforest:

https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/

https://amazonwatch.org/

https://www.rainforesttrust.org/

Written by

Environmental Scientist. Military. Keeping up with wildlife news.

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