An agouti is a large rodent native to South America, where it ranges from Mexico to parts of Argentina. Agoutis can get quite large, weighing up to nine pounds (four kilograms), and they form an important part of rainforest ecology. In addition to being found in the wild, the agouti is kept in captivity in numerous zoos all over the world. Some agouti species are at risk due to habitat destruction and hunting, raising concerns among conservationists about the health of forests without strong agouti populations.
All agoutis are in the genus Dasyprocta, and they are related to guinea pigs. They have stocky, solid bodies and long slender legs, with tails which range from short to long depending on the species. At first glance, an agouti looks sort of like a tail-less squirrel on stilts. Coloration varies widely, but the animals usually have glossy, smooth fur with a hint of cinnamon brown coloration. As a general rule, agoutis roam during the daytime, but under periods of stress, they will turn nocturnal.
The animals prefer to live in areas with lots of vegetative ground cover, which provides nutrition as well as hiding and nesting spaces. Agoutis form monogamous pairs for life, and they may mate up to two times a year in favorable conditions, producing a litter of live young after a gestation period of 120 days. Once the young are mature, they are encouraged to find new habitat elsewhere in the forest, although captive agouti families may live together peacefully.
The diet of agoutis is omnivorous, with the animals scavenging fallen fruit, seeds, shoots, fresh greens, and insects. They also cache large amounts of seeds and fruits, contributing to the dispersal of rainforest seeds, which encourages healthy and balanced growth around the forest. In regions where agoutis have been overhunted, ecologists have noticed a decline in biodiversity, which is probably caused by several factors in addition to the scarcity of the rodents.
Like many small wild mammals, the agouti tends to be nervous and somewhat flighty. The animals communicate with grunts and squeaks, and also make characteristic gnawing sounds as they crack through the hulls of seeds and nuts. Some people keep agoutis as exotic pets, and while they are less suitable than guinea pigs and similar relatives, they can make interesting and loyal companion animals. Before considering an agouti as a pet, make sure that you have access to a veterinarian who handles exotic animals, and check on local regulations which may require you to get a wildlife permit.