Introduction to the Capybara
Native to the wetlands and tropical forests of South America, the capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) are the largest living rodents in the world. They are heavily built, ground-dwelling animals characterized by their barrel-shaped bodies, short heads, and small ears. Their thick, reddish brown fur grows longer on their bellies and tails, while their undersides and feet are usually light orange or cream color. Typically, a fully grown adult can range in length from 80 to 130 cm (31 to 51 inches) and weigh up to 66 kg (145 lbs).
Capybaras are social animals, often living together in small family groups of up to 10 individuals, with a dominant male taking the lead. They spend their days grazing together in meadows, wallowing in pools of water, and basking in the sun. Not surprisingly, these endearing animals are extremely popular in zoos and wildlife parks all around the world.
Where Do Capybaras Live?
Capybaras are found throughout much of northern and central South America, ranging from north Argentina and Mexico, to the southern portion of the Amazon. Their preferred habitats include grasslands, savannas, swamps, marshes, and riversides. They are found in both lowland and mountain areas, with the greatest concentrations occurring in areas of wetland vegetation, where they have plenty of food and open water.
Capybaras may also be found in human-modified environments, including agricultural fields, ranchlands, and gardens, though not as frequently. In areas where they come into contact with domestic livestock, they may even scavenge food scraps.
What Do Capybaras Eat?
Capybaras are known as ‘semiaquatic’ grazers, meaning they spend much of their time foraging on land but can also feed in and around shallow bodies of water. They typically prefer to eat tender grasses, aquatic plants, and grains, but may also snack on fruit, cacti, insects, snails, and small lizards, if and when the opportunity arises.
Being diurnal animals, capybaras tend to feed and wallow in mud during the morning and afternoon, and then sleep at night. It is not uncommon for them to feed several times a day as well. They are able to remain underwater for up to 5 minutes at a time and use frequent bouts of underwater feeding and wallowing to help regulate body temperature during the warmer months.
Capybara Reproduction and Social Behavior
While solitary males will circle a female in heat, breeding pairs of capybaras are usually monogamous, forming and maintaining exclusive relationships for many years before looking for new mates.
Females typically reach sexual maturity between the ages of 6 – 18 months, while males become sexually active from the age of two. Breeding season coincides with the wet season, with litters of up to 8 pups being born after a gestation period of up to 130 days.
Capybaras create a strict social hierarchy within their groups, always with a dominant male as the leader. The dominant male protects the family and arbitrates conflicts between individuals. Typically, one or two submissive males will remain with the family and serve as subordinate caretakers or helpmates.
Why Do Capybaras Make Good Pets?
With their friendly demeanors, cute faces, and gentle nature, it is not hard to understand the appeal of capybaras as pets. Regulated and licensed ownership is possible in some locations and, with the proper care and attention, capybaras can make delightful pets. They form strong, social bonds with their owners, often developing great loyalty as well.
However, as with any exotic animal, potential owners should take into consideration the lifelong commitment owning a capybara requires. A knowledgeable exotic veterinarian should be consulted before bringing a capybara into the home.
The IUCN currently lists the capybara as a species of least concern. It is estimated that up to 5 million wild capybaras exist throughout South America. The biggest threats to wild populations are habitat destruction, overhunting, motor vehicle collisions, and predation by large cats, boar, eagles, and other animals.
Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society are actively working to protect declining capybara populations, with a focus on conserving wetlands in South America and devising methods of sustainable hunting.
From their cute faces to their interesting behavior, capybaras certainly have plenty of endearing characteristics. They can make extremely fascinating and rewarding pets, and it would be nice to see their populations remain healthy and stable for future generations.
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