Capybara Facts | Anatomy, Diet, Habitat, Behavior

Capybaras (Hydrochaeridae) are the world’s largest rodents weighing more than 60 kilograms. They are found in the lowlands of Panama ranging from South America to Northern Uruguay and Argentina. ‘Water pig’ or ‘water cavy’ are some other names given to these large terrestrial rodents. They rarely go far away from water and their physical appearance reminds us of giant guinea pigs. Capybaras have massive body but their legs are quite short.

Capybara Facts

Capybaras are the largest living rodents in the world.

Anatomy

  • The head-body length of the capybara is 39.4–51.2 in (100–130 cm), and shoulder height measures up to 19.7 in (50 cm). It weighs up to 138.9 lb (63 kg) on average. The females weigh up to 176.4 lb (80 kg) with the length reaching around 39.4–51.2 in (100–130 cm); the shoulder height is 19.7 in (50 cm), and the weight averages 63 kg.
  • Capybara is recognized by its head which is proportionately large and broad. The neck and legs are short whereas the ears are small and rounded.
  • The females are larger than the males.
  • The capybara’s coat is reddish brown to grayish and the undersides are light yellow to brown. It has a long hair which allows the body to overheat too quickly. Therefore, capybaras typically avoid sunburn by seeking shade or simply swimming during the heat.
  • Two of the four legs which are at the forefront contain four toes each but each of the hind feet contains three toes.
  • The capybara’s feet are partially adapted to swimming.
  • Unlike females the adult capybara male is recognized by its black sebaceous gland. The gland is primarily used to mark with essence plants in their territory.
  • Capybaras are not only strong swimmers but they are equally good at walking on land. They are able to gallop as quickly as horses do.
  • It has a fairly short tail.

Distribution

Capybaras occur in the South America east of the Andes, ranging from northeastern Argentina to Venezuela, Columbia, the Guianas, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, and Panama.

The habitat deforestation and hunting have reduced the number of capybaras in some isolated areas.

capybara facts
Capybaras in marshes. Courtesy www.capybaraworld.wordpress.com

Habitat

  • Capybaras are known to make homes only in places which are abundant in water. It typically breeds in lakes, marshes, rivers, swamps, streams, and ponds.
  • Capybaras are regular grazers and as such they consume grass vegetation, woodland, forest, and water.
  • The largest population of capybaras can be found in three regions: the Taim lowlands in southern Brazil, the Pantanal in western Brazil, and the llanos in Venezuela.
  • They also occupy much of the Amazonian floodplain including Marajó Island, located at the mouth of the Amazon River.
  • Flooding plays a major role in making capybaras’ habitats. When the flooding stops and the land dry out, many small pools or ponds seem to appear and these scattered pools invite large number of capybaras.
  • During the floods capybaras live in isolated groups; some breed in the woodland while others move in the forest patches.
  • Capybaras also adapt themselves to modified habitats to increase their populations. They also make homes in artificial habitats which are formed by lakes or dams. They will not even hesitate to live in areas with some degree of pollution such as the Tiete River (Sau Paulo).

Behavior

  • Capybaras are highly social animals as they often form small groups which comprise of adult males, females, and a young. Each group consists of no more than 6 to 10 individuals. One adult dominant male will lead the group along with two submissive males, followed by four adult females and young. The leader of the group goes a little aggressive just to stamp his authority.
  • Capybaras are generally active at night but they do move around during the day. However at noon they will seek some shelters in the forest.
  • The home range of capybaras averages 200 acres (80 ha) but it can be greater if the season is ideal for making habitats.
  • During the dry season capybaras form large group ranges as compared to the rainy season when the land rarely offers any grassland to feed on.
  • The social behavior of capybaras is classified into three activities: this includes resting, feeding on grasses and social interactions.
  • When threatened capybaras will stay alert in water while raising its head in a straight posture, they will keep looking in one direction. This gives the predator a clear signal that capybara observes its movement. However if the predator continues to approach the capybara either barks like a dog or it simply runs away.
  • Capybaras are large territorial grazers spending hours feeding on grasslands but they are well aware of nearby threats.
  • When resting the capybara will raise its head to an erect position.
  • It sleeps discontinuously during the day in wooded areas.
  • Capybaras are extremely good swimmers and their webbed feet are well adapted to swimming.
  • Sometimes the dominant male along with the females circles around the predator to see it off.
  • The most common social behavior of capybaras is a male to male interaction. The interaction takes place in between dominant males.
  • Capybaras also communicate through a series of grunts, barks, and whistles. They have a very good sense of smell.
Capybara in Venezuela. Courtesy www.nytimes.com
Capybara in Venezuela. Courtesy www.nytimes.com

Feeding Ecology and Diet

  • Capybaras primarily feed on grasses and other aquatic plants near small water bodies. They also eat grains, squashes, and melons but only sometimes.
  • Capybaras are exclusively herbivores species. They have a varied diet depends on the particular season. During the dry season when the green pasture is abundant, they spend many hours feeding on grasslands. However during the flooding season capybaras are most likely to feed on floating plants or vegetation.

Reproductive Biology

  • Capybaras are known to breed all year round but they mostly depend on the quality of the habitat. The mating typically occurs in April and May.
  • Capybara seeks woodland or shelter not only to avoid midday heat but also for a better birth place.
  • The gestation period lasts 147 days but it can be lesser or greater depends on the environment.
  • The female gives birth to 1 to 7 live babies. Each baby weighs up to 3 lb (1,400 g). The young capybaras are able to walk and see within a week of their birth. These infants are extremely vocal constantly.
  • The young are weaned in about 16 weeks. The capybara reaches the maturity after 15 months.
  • The mother capybara will feed her young for about 10 days.
  • The infants will stay with their mother for about 6 weeks.
  • Capybara has an average lifespan of 8 – 10 years in the wild but in captivity they are able to live 12 years.

References 

Alho, C. J. R., Z. M. Campos, and H. C. Gonçalves. “Ecology, Social Behavior and Management of the Capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris) in the Pantanal of Brazil.” In
Advances in Neotropical Mammalogy, edited by K. H. Redford and J. F. Eisenberg. Gainesville, FL: Sandhill Crane Press, 1989.

Moreira, J. R., D. W. Macdonald, and J. R. Clarke. “Alguns Aspectos Comportamentais da Reprodução da Capivara.” Revista Brasileira de Reprodução Animal 25, no. 2 (2001):
120–122.

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