Also known as chigwire, carpincho, the giant water guinea pig or simply the water hog, capybara, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris is the largest living rodent in the world.
It is closely related to chinchillas, agouti, and guinea pigs. What is very interesting is that this animal looks strikingly like Mr. Spock’s character in Star Trek.
This semi-aquatic rodent lives in swamps and ponds, but also in forests, near ponds, lakes, and rivers, and it can be found in Central and South America.
The name capybara comes from the Guarani dialect, the language of a South American population, and translates as “the master of grass.” At the same time, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, in Greek, means “water hog”.
Although currently extinct, there was once a larger species of capybara known scientifically as Neochoerus pinckneyi.
Fossils of other rodents that were 8 times the size of modern capybara were informally called “capybaries”, but in reality, they were Dinomyidea related to the Pacarana. There is also a smaller capybara, scientifically called Hydrochoerus Isthmius.
The capybara lives on high meadows near rivers, swamps, and lakes in tropical regions of South America, in Colombia, Venezuela, the two Guianas, Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Suriname, northeastern Argentina, and Uruguay, and the state of Panama.
It is never found far from watercourses and is an excellent swimmer who often has to dive into the water to escape predators. They roam the places where they live in, spread over about 10-20 hectares.
Capybaras are herbivorous mammals. They feed on aquatic plants, various vegetables, fruits, and grains. After they have finished eating, the capybara will lay in the sun on the waterfront, relaxing.
Like in the case of other rodents, the two front teeth, the incisors, continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. So, to blunt its teeth, the capybara must grind and chew.
Capybara has a highly efficient digestive system that supports the animal, as 75% of its diet includes only 3 to 6 plant species. A capybara can consume up to 2,7-3,6 kg of vegetables per day.
Like guinea pigs, capybaras are coprophagia animals. This means they consume their own feces as a source of intestinal bacterial flora, to help digest the cellulose from grass that is part of their normal diet, and to extract as much protein from their food as they can.
In addition, they can regurgitate their food to grind it again. A situation similar to this is seen in cows that chew their sawdust. This doesn’t happen every day.
Capybara is a gentle creature that will make a low-pitched sound like a croak when it is happy.
An excellent swimmer, the capybara sinks and can stay underwater for up to 5 minutes without coming to the surface. If it is a must, the capybara can even sleep underwater, only with the nostrils on the surface of the water.
During midday, as ambient temperatures rise, the capybara will dip into the water to cool down and then will graze in the late afternoon and early evening. They sleep a little, and usually snooze during the day.
A sociable animal, the capybara is the only rodent living in small herds of 10-20 individuals, including a dominant male and 2-3 females with their offspring. The dominant male will have an odorous gland developed in the nose used to spread its scent on herbs present in its territory.
The capybaras communicate through a combination of different sounds and odors. The capybaras are very vocal, emitting sounds, similar to those found in felines, and alarm barks, howling, crackling, screeching, squeaking, and grunting.
The capybaras have heavy, barrel-shaped bodies with no tails. The head of the capybara is developed both in length and width, and ends with a blunt muzzle, similar to that of a horse, and on the opposite side, with a short and thick neck. Their ears are small.
The capibara has small black eyes, which are near the top of the head. The wide jaws carry the 20 teeth, and the front teeth, the incisors, experience continuous growth.
The forelimbs are shorter than the hind legs and end with fingers, 4 on the front and 3 on the back. They are joined by an interdigital membrane, similar to duck paws, which helps with swimming.
Each finger ends with a claw in the form of a hoof. The capybara’s fur is made of thin, rough, and reddish-brown hairs on the dorsal areas and yellow-brown on the ventral areas, the abdomen, which dries quickly.
The adult capybara can reach a length of up to 130 cm and weighs about 45-65 kg. Females are a bit more full-bodied than males. The height of the capybara is about 50 cm.
Capybara reaches sexual maturity around the age of 18-22 months and only mates when living conditions are perfect, respectively once a year, in the case of the Brazilian population, or throughout the whole year, in Venezuela and Colombia. The rainy season, from April-May, marks the peak of the mating period. The male follows the female and mounts it while it reaches the water.
The gestation period in capybara is about 130-150 days. The birth happens on land, and the female joins the group it belongs to within a few hours from birth. When they can move, the offspring will join the group. Females give birth to one to eight cubs, but the average is 4. Newborns weigh about 1 kg. They are covered with hair and can see from birth.
Within about a week from birth, the offspring can eat grass but will continue to drink milk, both from their own mother and the other lactating females in the group, until they reach around 16 weeks. When they join the group of their mothers, the cubs will form their own group within the family.
As with other rodents, the incisors of capybaras grow continuously to compensate for their constant fret from the consumption of herbs. Their molars also have continuous growth.
When fully developed, the capybara will have fur consisting of coarse hairs that are arranged here and there on its skin, which makes this animal prone to sunburn. To prevent these problems, they roll through the mud to protect their skin from the sun.
The Capybara is hunted by jaguars, caimans, ocelots, harpy eagles, large snakes, such as anaconda, as well as humans, who also eat them. When it feels threatened, the capybara enters the water making use of its powerful swimming skills.
In terms of interacting with humans, capybaras are gentle and usually allow people to pet them and feed them from the palm of their hand.
Also, in the areas where capybaras live, they are hunted by natives for their skins and meat. Their meat is said to resemble in taste and look to pork. The capybara meat is left to the ground and salted, then cut and seasoned. Considered a delicacy, capybara meat is often served with rice and bananas.
Capybara populations are considered stable in almost all of its geographical areas, but hunting them in certain regions has drastically reduced their numbers.
The life expectancy of a capybara is 8-10 years in captivity. In the wild, very few capybaras reach this age due to predators.