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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)

Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris (Linneaus, 1766)

Range:  North and central South America
Habitat: Lowland Habitats close to Water (Swamps, Seasonally Flooded Savannah)
Diet: Grasses, Aquatic Vegetation, Fruit
Social Grouping: Family Groups of 10-30: a dominant male with his harem and some subordinate males; Temporary aggregations may consist of over 100 animals, the rare solitary individuals are usually males
Reproduction:  Following 150 day gestation, females give birth to 1 litter of up to 8 young at end of the rainy season; the highly developed young form a crèche and suckle from any female; young are sexually mature at 12-18 months
Lifespan: 10 Years (Wild), 12 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • The world's largest rodent - head and body length is 106-134 centimeters, shoulder height is 50-62 centimeters.  Weight is 35-66 kilograms.  Females are slightly larger than males
  • The head is large and blunt with a heavy muzzle, the legs short, the tail rudimentary, and the toes ending in hoof-like claws.  The sparse, course hair is yellow, brown, or red in color
  • Males differ from females in having a large scent gland (Morillo) on top of the snout, which secretes a sticky fluid
  • They have several aquatic adaptations - eyes, ears, and nostrils hight on the head, partially-webbed toes, and a large amount of fatty tissue to give neutral buoyancy in water
  • The name Capybara is from the Tupinambi for "master of the grasses, referring the llanos habitat where they are the most numerous
  • They are strong swimmers and take to the water when frightened, staying underwater for as long as 5 minutes; they also mate in water
  • All members of the herd defend territory, and may recognize other group members by scent from the glands on the anus; territories encompass feeding grounds and wallowing areas
  • Primarily crepuscular, they may become nocturnal in areas where they are heavily persecuted by humans; their large body size leaves them prone to heat stress
  • Predators include jaguars, caiman, and anacondas; if danger is sighted, they will give an alarm bark
  • Have been extensively hunted for meats, hides (yielding high-quality leather), grease (used in the pharmaceutical trade); they are also hunted as a pest, seen as a crop-raider or competitor with livestock.  In some areas, attempts have been made to farm them commercially, as they have more efficient digestion than cattle
  • Capybara meat is popularly eaten during Lent in some parts of South America, as they are considered "fish" by the Catholic Church, due to a colonial-era decree

Zookeeper's Journal: Capybara are some of the most charming animals I've ever worked with... or would be, if not for two factors.  One concerns their use of water.  Highly aquatic, they require large pools, preferably deep enough to completely submerge within, as they would in the wild.  Unfortunately, they show equal fondness for defecating in the water as for swimming, which makes cleaning up after them something of a chore.  Secondly, there is the issue of aggression.  Despite their placid, cute appearances, capybara can be viciously savage towards on another, inflicting powerful bites with their chisel teeth.  When you have a compatible pair, it's fantastic, but introducing two strange capybara to one another is often fraught with tension...

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