The capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is the world's largest rodent (i.e., it is a member of
the Order Rodentia, which includes rats, mice, squirrels, etc.). According to Animal Planet, it's
South America's "super-rodent," not surprising as it weighs in at 70 to 150 pounds, and measures about
four feet in length, about the same as a medium-sized dog. The scientific name, "Hydrochaeris,"
means "water pig." But its resemblance to a pig ends there. Its narrow face results from the
placement of its eyes, ears and nostrils at the top of the head. This arrangement allows it to rest in the
water with most of its body underwatera useful adaptation to avoiding predators. Remaining in the
water also helps the animal keep an even temperature, presumably preserving energy that would otherwise be
needed to regulate body temperature. The capybara's body resembles a giant guinea pig, lacking a tail,
with raised, wide hindquarters and narrow shoulders. The reddish fur is rather coarse, presumably this has
made its pelt less desirable to hunters, although it is hunted for food occasionally. The hunter will tan
the hide, making it into soft, smooth leather. Like all rodents, the capybara sports a large pair of front
teeth. These give it a rather goofy appearance when it opens its mouth.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
The capybara is not a very efficient swimmer, but is perfectly at home in the water. In addition to the
eyes and ears being set high on the head, the adaptation to an aquatic lifestyle is continued by its feet,
which are webbed between the toes. However, it avoids fast streams and big rivers. Quiet lagoons and small
lakes are its preference. It never strays far from water to which it quickly retreats at the first sign of
danger. The capybara lives in a wide range of habitats from lowland rainforest to dry forests, scrub or
grassland. It prefers grassland plains that are seasonally flooded and have bodies of permanent water. It
is found throughout much of northern South America including the Amazon watershed, to the Orinoco basin,
Guianas, and Argentinean pampas. Being relatively social, the capybara roams around in family groups of six
or more, reaching herd sizes of several dozen in open grassland.
FEEDING AND DIET
The capybara is vegetarian, but feeds on a wide range of plant matter. Mostly it eats aquatic plants,
grass and certain shrubs, although it will eat tree bark and fruit occasionally. Its sharp incisors
(front teeth) are especially adept at cropping off grass at ground level. In areas where it has been
hunted, the capybara feeds primarily at night, but its natural habit is to feed mostly during the
day. This lifestyle occupies a similar niche to that of the African hippopotamus, although the capybara is
Capybaras have a high reproductive rate. Males have a gland on the nose that provides a scent with which
they mark territories to attract females and deter competing males. Mating takes place in the water and
after a gestation period about five to six months, the female gives birth (on land) to one to six young (average is
four). The young accompany her until adulthood, at about 15 to 18 months. The rainy season from April to
May marks the peak breeding season. Young are born ready to move, with their eyes open and fully covered
Predators of the capybara are legion, including jaguar, caiman, ocelot and anaconda. However, people are
the main threat to populations, primarily through habitat destruction comprising deforestation or draining
their wetland habitats. In populated areas, the capybara is rare or absent as it is widely hunted for meat.
Teams of hunters use dogs to hunt the herds, and may kill several capybaras in a single hunting expedition.
They're easy to track along muddy water edges from their distinctive star-shaped footprints, and
oval-shaped droppings. In savanna regions (mostly outside the Amazon watershed), capybaras are herded and
used for meat and leather. The meat is supposed to taste and look like pork. Such efforts are reassuring
for the capybara as a species but farming it within rainforests has not yet caught on, perhaps putting some
subpopulations at risk.
It is called carpincho in Spanish and capivara in Portuguese, although the name originally derives from
the Guarani "Kapiÿva," meaning "lord of the grass." Like most large South American
mammals, it has a variety of names, according to country (e.g., capihuara in Ecuador, ronsoco in Peru, and
capivara or cupido in Brazil). According the Yanomami Indians of northwest Brazil, when a child is born,
another soul in the form of a capybara (or tapir) also comes into being. This animal
"doppelganger" shares its life force with the Indian; should the animal be killed, so does the
Indian twin soul.
Some people in South America eat capybara regularly because of the church's directive to eat fish on
Friday (originally to help provide fishermen with a market for their produce). Due to a twist of
theological reasoning, the capybara is a fish, according to the Catholic Church. According to the entry for
Capybara on Wikipedia, European missionaries first met capybaras in South America in the 16th century. They
wrote to the Catholic Church in Rome to ask if they could classify the capybara as a fish because it "is
scaly but also hairy, and spends time in the water but occasionally comes on land." At that time, the
Catholic faith did not allow the eating of meat (other than fish) during Lent, the period of abstinence
lasting 40 days before Easter. Having a second-hand description of the animal, and not wanting the
petitioners to turn away from Catholicism, The Church agreed, as they had not seen the animal directly and
wanted the missionaries and their Indian converts (who ate capybara) to remain within the Church, and
therefore declared the capybara a fish. The decision was never reversed.