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What is a Capybara?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A capybara is a large semi-aquatic rodent found in the family Hydrochoeridae. The rodents are native to tropical South America, although they have been exported around the world for display in zoos and as pets and feral herds can be found in some parts of Florida. In South America, the animals are sometimes regarded as pests, due to their tendency to destroy vegetable crops, and some people also hunt them for food. Allegedly, the meat is reminiscent of pork, with a pale white appearance when cooked.

When early Portuguese explorers first met the capybara, they adopted the animal's name, capibara from the native Tupi Indians. Capibara means “grass eater,” a reference to the animal's vegetarian diet, which was undoubtedly a subject of interest when capibaras were decimating vegetable crops. When the animals were formally classified as Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, scientists chose to name the animal after its aquatic habitat of choice, rather than its dining habits.

To a casual observer, a capybara looks a lot like an oversized guinea pig. The animals are reddish brown with stumps for ears and tails, and short, blunt snouts. They also spend most of their lives in or around the water, and are quite athletic swimmers and divers. An adult capybara can stay underwater as long as five minutes, and the animals have been known to sleep underwater, keeping their nostrils above the surface like crocodiles.

A full grown capybara can reach a length of four feet (a little over one meter). This places the capybara in the undisputed position of largest living rodent. The muscular, sturdy animals tend to live in groups, although solitary individuals or pairs are sometimes observed in the wild. Given their affinity for water, some people call capybaras “water hogs.” Their skills in the water also make capybaras difficult to hunt and capture, since they readily escape to waterways when threatened.

The gestation period for capybaras is around 130 days, and mothers typically care for their young for several months, sometimes with the assistance of other female capybaras. The six to eight babies birthed by one capybara start out a creamy white, and darken in color as they mature. Given that the animals are extremely popular fodder for a range of jungle animals, they do not have a long life expectancy in the wild. Captive capybaras, on the other hand, have been known to live well over a decade.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a capybara and where can it be found?

A capybara is the world's largest rodent, native to South America. These semi-aquatic mammals are found throughout much of the continent, particularly near bodies of water such as rivers, ponds, and marshes. They thrive in dense forests and savannas, where they can easily access the vegetation that makes up their diet.

How big do capybaras get?

Capybaras can grow quite large, with adults typically weighing between 35 to 66 kilograms (77 to 146 pounds) and measuring up to 1.2 meters (4 feet) in length. According to the San Diego Zoo, some capybaras can even reach weights of up to 79 kilograms (174 pounds), making them truly impressive in size for a rodent.

What do capybaras eat?

Capybaras are herbivores, primarily feeding on grasses and aquatic plants. They have a complex digestive system that allows them to extract nutrients from tough plant material. During the dry season, they may also consume grains, melons, and squashes to supplement their diet, as per the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Are capybaras social animals?

Yes, capybaras are highly social creatures and typically live in groups ranging from 10 to 20 individuals, though some groups can number over 100. These groups are structured around a dominant male, and they communicate through a variety of vocalizations, scent markings, and body language, as observed by researchers.

How do capybaras adapt to their aquatic environment?

Capybaras are well-adapted to life in the water with webbed feet for swimming and eyes, ears, and nostrils located high on their heads, allowing them to see and breathe while mostly submerged. They can even stay underwater for up to five minutes to hide from predators, showcasing their remarkable aquatic abilities.

What is the conservation status of capybaras?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists capybaras as a species of Least Concern, indicating they are not at immediate risk of extinction. However, they do face threats from habitat destruction and hunting for their meat and skin, which necessitates ongoing monitoring and conservation efforts to ensure their populations remain stable.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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