Animal Species Spotlight: Capybara

by Jake Jacoby | September 28, 2019

© Jake Jacoby

I saw my first capybara while on a photographic workshop in the Brazilian Pantanal with NatureScapes.net in 2018. The Pantanal is part national park and part a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition, it is the largest tropical wetland in the world, covering over 70,000 square miles; an area the size of the State of Washington. It is 10 times larger than the Florida Everglades, and lies almost in the center of South America.

Capybara Family © Jake Jacoby

The Capybara is a mammal native to South America and is the largest living rodent in the world. It is a highly social species and can be found in groups as large as 100 individuals, but usually lives in groups of 10 to 20. It is hunted for its meat and hide and also for grease from its thick fatty skin, which is used in the pharmaceutical trade.

Capybara with Pup © Jake Jacoby

The Capybara has a heavy, barrel-shaped body and a short head. Its sweat glands are found in the surface of the hairy portions of its skin, which is an unusual trait among rodents. Adult Capybaras grow to over 4-feet in length, 2-feet tall, and typically weigh 77 to 146 pounds. Females are slightly heavier than males. They have webbed feet and vestigial (small remnant of something much larger) tails. Their hind legs are slightly longer than their forelegs; and, they have 3 toes on their rear feet and 4 toes on their front feet. They have something in common with the Hippopotamus in that their eyes, ears, and nostrils are all found near the top of their head. So, they can lift just those parts out of the water to observe their surroundings while the rest of their body remains hidden under the water.

Adult Capybara © Jake Jacoby

Capybaras are semiaquatic mammals found throughout all countries of South America except Chile. The live in densely forested areas near bodies of water, such as lakes, river, swamps, ponds, and marshes and along rivers in the tropical rainforest. They are superb swimmers and can hold their breath underwater for up to five minutes which helps them to avoid predators. They can also sleep in the water while keeping only their noses out of the water.

Capybaras are herbivores, grazing mainly on grasses and aquatic plants, as well as fruit and tree bark. Their jaw hinge is not perpendicular, so they chew food by grinding back-and-forth rather than side-to-side. They can have a life span of 8 to 10 years but normally live less than 4 years in the wild. They have a rather short life span because they are the favorite food of Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Eagle, and Caiman. They are also the preferred prey of the Anaconda (the heaviest snake in the world 100 to 150 pounds and almost the longest at over 20 feet). In addition, they are ranched for meat in Venezuela and Columbia.

Capybara with Cattle Tyrant on Head © Jake Jacoby

When in estrus, the female’s scent changes subtly and nearby males begin pursuit. Also, a female will alert the males that she is in estrus by whistling through her nose. During mating, the female has the advantage and mating choice. Capybaras mate only in water, and if a female does not want to mate with a certain male, she either submerges or leaves the water.

Capybara gestation is 130 to 150 days and produces a litter of 4 pups on average but may produce between 1 and 8 in a single litter. Birth is on land and the female rejoins the group within a few hours of delivering the newborns. Within a week, the pups can eat grass, but continue to suckle, from any female in the group, until weened at around 16 weeks.

Adult Capybara in Grasslands © Jake Jacoby

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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