Capybara – The Largest Rodent in the World

The capybara or greater capybara (scientific name: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), is a giant cavy rodent native to South America. 

Capybara Largest-Rodent in the World

It holds the title of the largest living rodent in the world and belongs to the Hydrochoerus genus. Another existing species within this genus is the lesser capybara (Hydrochoerus isthmius).

On average, Capybaras weigh between 35 to 66 kg (77 to 146 lb).

Despite their potentially intimidating appearance, these gentle giants are primarily timid and docile in nature.

What is A Capybara

Capybara is the world’s largest living rodent. Also known as the water hog or Orinoca. This semi-aquatic creature thrives in savannas and dense forests. They typically reside near bodies of water for refuge from the heat. 

With eyes and ears positioned high on their head, capybaras can see and hear while swimming. Their webbed fingers and toes also aid in their excellent swimming skills. It allows them to remain submerged for up to five minutes to escape predators.

Capybara Swimming 1
Capybara in Water

Capybaras are even known to sleep in the water, keeping just their noses exposed. 

These rodents are most active during the cooler late afternoon and early evening hours. Spends the hotter parts of the day wallowing in the water.

In the dry season when water sources are scarce, large groups of capybaras numbering up to 50 can be found around a single mud puddle. When the rainy season comes, they divide into smaller groups.

Capybara Scientific Facts

  • Length of the Body: 31/3 to 41/4 feet (100 – 130 cm)
  • Weight: 77 to 174 pounds
  • Diet: grasses and water plants
  • Number of Young: 3 or 4
  • Home: South America
  • Class: Mammals
  • Order: Rodents
  • Family: Capybaras
  • Average life span: 7-11 years

Greater Capybara vs Lesser Capybara

The Greater Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is native to South America. The greater capybara shares the spotlight with its lesser-known cousin, the lesser capybara (Hydrochoerus isthmius).

Lesser Capybara
Lesser Capybara

The Lesser Capybara is found in eastern Panama, northwestern Colombia, and western Venezuela. It has a complicated history when it comes to classification. Initially, it was described as a separate species in 1912. It was later re-categorized as a subspecies of the greater capybara.

It was recommended that the lesser capybara should regain its status as a separate species after extensive research in the mid-1980s. While some still consider it a subspecies, the majority of the scientific community now recognizes it as distinct.

Lesser Capybara resembles the greater capybara in body shape. But the lesser capybara is smaller in size. Adults typically weigh up to 28 kg (62 lb), while adult greater Capybaras weigh at least 35 kg (77 lb) and often much more.

Lesser Capybara Habitat
Lesser Capybara Habitat

Lesser capybaras breed year-round, with an average litter size of 3.5. Depending on various factors such as season, habitat, and hunting pressure, they can be diurnal or nocturnal and solitary or social.

Unfortunately, the lesser capybara faces threats from subsistence hunting, gallery forest destruction, and swamp drainage, particularly in the Magdalena River region.

Their karyotype, or chromosome characteristics are also different from the greater capybara. 2n = 64 and FN = 104 for Lesser Capybara compared to 2n = 66 and FN = 102 for the greater Capybara.

Their differences in size, habitat, and genetics distinguish them as separate species within the Hydrochoerus genus.

Capybara Common Names

Capybara Eating Grass

The capybara is also known as capibara. It gets its name from the Guarani language ” kapiÿvá” or “kapi’yva “, meaning ‘lord of the pasture’ or ‘grass eater,’.

From the Tupí language, the term is ka’apiûara, meaning ‘one who eats thin leaves’ or ‘one who eats grass.’

Capybaras scientific name “Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris” is derived from the Greek words ὕδρω ( hydro “water”) and χοῖρος ( choiros “pig”) meaning ‘water pig.’

Capybaras are called by various names depending on the country or region.

  • Argentina : capybara, water pig, capybara. 
  • Bolivia : carpincho, capibara, capiguara, capihuara.
  • Brazil : capybara.
  • Colombia : chigüiro, jomo (in the eastern plains ), paqui, ñeque ( northern Colombia ), ponche.
  • Ecuador : carpincho, capincho, capibara.
  • Mexico : capibara.
  • Panama : poncho, capibara.
  • Paraguay : carp, carp, capybara, carp.
  • Peru : ronsoco, capybara, carp.
  • Uruguay : capybara
  • Venezuela : chigüire, piro-piro.
  • El Salvador : capybara.

Ecology: Where do Capybaras live?

Capybaras are semi-aquatic mammals native to South America, excluding Chile. They live in densely forested areas near bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, swamps, ponds, marshes, flooded savannahs and tropical rainforests. Water and temperature are the main factors in their distribution.

Capybara Native Living Range
Native Living Range

Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris(greater Capybara) are found in eastern Colombia, Venezuela, and the Guianas in northern South America, Amazonian Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, northeastern Argentina south to Quequen Chico River (38°17’5) in Buenos Aires Province.

Their habitat includes the basins of Orinoco, Amazonas, Sao Francisco, and La Plata rivers.

They are commonly found in countries like Brazil and Venezuela. They have adapted well to cattle ranches with home ranges averaging 10 hectares(25 acres). 

These creatures rely on both water for nutrients and protection from predators and dry areas for resting. Some escapees from captivity have been spotted in watery habitats worldwide, including Florida and California. In 2011, one specimen was spotted on the Central Coast of California.

Late Pleistocene capybaras inhabited Florida and Hydrochoerus hesperotiganites in California and Hydrochoerus gaylordi in Grenada, and feral capybaras in North America may actually fill the ecological niche of the Pleistocene species.

Capybara Classification, Phylogeny and Etymology

Scientific classification of Capybara:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Rodentia
  • Family: Caviidae
  • Genus: Hydrochoerus
  • Species: H. hydrochaeris

Capybaras belong to the Hydrochoerinae subfamily, and are closely related to rock cavies. Previously, both living and extinct capybaras were classified under the Hydrochoeridae family. 

Since 2002, molecular phylogenetic studies have shown a close relationship between the Hydrochoerus (capybaras) and Kerodon (rock cavies), leading to the placement of both genera in the Caviidae subfamily. 

In the past, paleontological classifications used Hydrochoeridae for all capybaras. While Hydrochoerinae was used for the living genus and its closest fossil relatives, such as Neochoerus. 

More recently, Hydrochoerinae has been classified within Caviidae. The taxonomy of fossil hydrochoerines is constantly changing, with the diversity of these fossils being significantly reduced in recent years. This is mainly due to the realization that capybara molar teeth exhibit strong variations in shape throughout an individual’s life. 

Among fossil species, the term “capybara” refers to several species of Hydrochoerinae that are more closely related to modern Hydrochoerus than to cardiomyine rodents like Cardiomys.

Fossil genera such as Cardiatherium, Phugatherium, Hydrochoeropsis, and Neochoerus are all considered capybaras under this concept.

Fossil ancestors of the modern capybara “Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris” can be traced back to the Upper Miocene. With the most primitive forms classified within the cardiaterine subfamily. This subfamily is paraphyletic, meaning its most recent members evolved from ancestral forms. 

The protohydrokerine subfamily, known from the Pliocene era, consists of a single genus “Chapalmatherium” (also known as Protohydrochoerus). These animals had skulls twice as large as those of modern capybaras and significantly longer limbs.

The hydrokerine subfamily, which includes “H. hydrochaeris” , appeared in the Late Pliocene. All known fossil remains of giant rodents are found in the American continent.

Capybara Reproduction and Development

Capybaras breed throughout the year, with mating typically peaking just before the rainy season. Gestation lasts between 130 and 156 days. Females usually give birth to one litter each year, consisting of an average of four young.

The subspecies H. hydrochaeris isthmius has a gestation period of 104 to 111 days and gives birth to an average of five young. 

Caoybara Reproductive Organs
Caoybara Reproductive Organs (credit: Tarcízio A. R. Paula)

Capybaras do not have nests, so birth can occur anywhere within their habitat. Newborns weigh around 3.3 pounds and are weaned at 16 weeks. They begin eating grass within a week of birth. Both males and females reach sexual maturity at 15 months of age.

Females signal their readiness to mate during estrus by changing their scent and whistling through their noses. The female estrus cycle occurs every 7.5 days; and remains receptive for only 8 hours. Mating occurs only in water. Females have the advantage and choice in selecting their mates.

Dominant males are protective of females but cannot prevent some subordinate males from mating with them. Subordinate males, as a group, are responsible for more matings than each dominant male.

Capybara sperm has a longer lifespan than most rodents.

Capybara litters usually consist of four young but can range from one to eight. The young are born on land and join the main group once they are mobile. They form a subgroup within the main group and can be nursed by any female in the group.

Alloparenting has been observed in Capybaras. Breeding peaks vary between regions, occurring between April and May in Venezuela and between October and November in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Capybaras possess two scent glands: a morrillo on their snout and anal glands. Both sexes have these glands.

But males have larger morrillos. They use their anal glands more frequently, which are lined with detachable hairs coated in a crystalline scent secretion. This scent is released upon contact with objects, such as plants, and can be tasted by other capybaras. 

Females typically mark without urinating and do so less frequently. However, females mark more often during the wet season when in estrus. Males also scent-mark females in addition to objects.

Capybara Facts

Popularity and meme culture

In the early 2020s, capybaras gained popularity in meme culture. When people were in lockdown, Capybaras began to frequently roam around more in urbanized areas. People recorded their activities mainly because of docility and elegance.

In Uruguay, the capybara features on the 2-peso coin as part of a collection honoring native fauna. Capybara meat is also used in traditional dishes, such as roasted capybara blanket and milanesas, with various seasonings and spices.

Colombian children’s book author Ivar Da Coll (b. 1962) further popularized the capybara through his wordless picture book saga. Known as Chigüiro in Colombia, first published in 1987. The Chigüiro series, which includes six titles and has been expanded upon by Babel Publishing. It has become a classic in Latin American children’s literature.

How Long Do Capybaras Live

Capybaras can live up to 8-10 years, but their lifespan is usually shortened to less than four years in the wild due to predation.

Capybara Body and Fur

Capybara Skeleton
Capybara Skeleton

Capybara is a large, barrel-shaped rodent with a short head. Reddish-brown fur on its upper body transitions to a yellowish-brown color underneath.

The body is large and heavy with a descendant croup. Its distinct sweat glands are located on the surface of its hairy skin.

Its tail is vestigial with little difference between its guard hair and over hair.

Capybaras Body
Capybaras Body

Capybara’s body features a thick trunk, perissodactyl feet, four short legs, four-toed front legs and three-toed hind legs with small webbing between the strong, thick hoof-like fingers. Limbs are short.

Females are usually slightly larger than males. An average weight of 61 kg compared to the male’s 50 kg. Their actual weight can range between 27 and 65 kg. The capybara measures 1 to 1.3 meters in length and stands 50 to 60 cm tall at the back. 

Its long, wiry coat varies in thickness, sometimes exposing the skin beneath, making them prone to sunstroke. To prevent this, capybaras roll in the mud to shield their skin from the sun.

Their fur color ranges from reddish-brown to gray on top with a yellow-brown underside. They have occasional black spots on the face, legs, and back. Their hair lengths can range from 30 to 120 mm.

Capybara Head and teeth

Capybaras have a notably large and broad head with a round, prominent snout and small, widely separated nostrils. Hair length ranges from 30 to 120 mm. Males have a bald tip on their snout endowed with a prominence that corresponds to the olfactory gland. 

Zygomata are strong and jugal is broad. The skull is heavy, flat, and narrow if both zygomata are excluded.

capybara skull head teeth
Capybara skull 2
Capybara skull 3

Capybara’s eyes, ears, and nostrils are positioned on the top of their head. It allows them to peak from the water’s surface when breathing or observing their surroundings.

Capybara Teeth

The capybara has a dental formula of 1-0-1-3. Each half of the jaw contains one incisor tooth, one premolar, and three molars, totaling 20 teeth. 

Their white incisors have a groove and, like all rodents, are enlarged and rootless. There’s a space called a diastema between the incisors and the posterior teeth.

These rootless posterior teeth have a complex heart-shaped or bar-like morphology, separated by layers of cement.

Capybaras’ incisors and molars continually grow to compensate for the wear caused by their grass-heavy diet.

Capybara size & weight: How big is a Capybara

Adult Capybaras range from 3.48 to 4.40 feet in length and 20 to 24 inches in height at the shoulders. 

Capybara Footprint
Capybara Footprint

They typically weigh between 77 and 146 pounds, with females being slightly heavier than males.

The heaviest recorded capybaras were a 201-pound wild female giant capybara from Brazil and a 162-pound male from Uruguay. 

Capybaras have partially webbed feet, short tails, and their hind legs are longer than their forelegs. They have three toes on their back feet and four on their front feet. Their muzzles are blunt. Nostrils, eyes and ears are located near the top of their heads.

Do capybaras bite?

Yes, Capybaras can indeed bite as a means of self-defense. To avoid this, it’s important to keep your fingers away from them and not make sudden grabbing motions. Rather, let them initiate any affectionate interactions.

Are Capybaras aggressive?

Capybaras are considered gentle giants and are typically not aggressive. However, they may exhibit aggression if provoked by another capybara during feeding.

Do Capybaras dig?

No, Capybaras do not dig like hogs; instead, they can squeeze through small openings and are fast runners, making it difficult to catch them if they escape. They are even capable of climbing a three-foot chain link fence when being chased by a dominant male.

Can capybaras be trained?

Yes, Capybaras can indeed be trained through patience and consistent repetition. They are responsive to verbal calls, whistles, and feed buckets, and even recognize their names as they age.

Capybaras can perform various actions, such as twirling, running, and standing on their hind legs, for food rewards.

How to feed a capybara?

Capybaras are herbivores that primarily consume grass, around 3 kg per day. They are more selective during the wet season. They get 80% of their food intake from just five types of grasses. 

Capybaras can also be fed milk replacers, puppy chow, cattle creeper pellets, rabbit pellets, rodent food, and bread.

How to pronounce Capybara?

Capybara sounds like – “ka·puh·baa·ruh” in English. Capybara in Japanese-  カピバラ

Its common name is derived from Tupi ka’apiûara, a complex agglutination of kaá (leaf) + píi (slender) + ú (eat) + ara (a suffix for agent nouns), meaning “one who eats slender leaves”, or “grass-eater”.

Are Capybara Fish

No, Capybara is a Rodent. In 1784, the Vatican declared the capybara a fish, allowing its consumption on Fridays during Lent.

But the funny thing is the capybara is not a fish, never was. This classification by the Vatican was made to accommodate dietary restrictions during religious observance.

Capybaras in Zoos

Capybara in Zoo
Capybara in Zoo
(Pic Credit: Katsuhito Watanabe)

Capybaras have adapted well to urban environments. You can easily find them in zoos and park areas. They can live up to 12 years in captivity. It is way more than double their lifespan in the wild. 

They generally allow humans to interact with them. But physical contact is discouraged due to the risk of transmitting Rocky Mountain spotted fever through their ticks. 

In an effort to control captive populations in Europe, Drusillas Park in Sussex, England, has been entrusted by the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums to maintain the capybara stud book, which documents all births, deaths, movements, and parentage of the species.

Where are Capybaras Native to

Capybaras are native to South and Central America. Predominantly found in Panama, east of the Canal Zone, and on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains.

Their range extends from Colombia and the Guianas to Uruguay and northeastern Argentina. Brazil and the rivers and marshes of Los Llanos in Venezuela host the highest density of capybaras.

Capybara Living in groups

Capybaras are highly social creatures. They usually live in groups of 10-20 individuals. Each group has two to four adult males, four to seven adult females, and a few baby Capybaras. 

These groups can grow as large as 50 to 100 individuals in the dry season as they gather around available water sources. Usually, there is one male for every 4 to 14 females. 

Living in territories ranging from 12 to 50 acres, Capybaras exhibit a strong sense of community. Adult members protect the younger ones from predators by forming a protective huddle.

Males play a crucial role in establishing social bonds, dominance, and group consensus. Males can emit dog-like barks when threatened or when females are herding young. 

The size of their groups may vary depending on the season, with smaller groups during the wet season and larger ones during the dry season.

Eating Capybaras and getting eaten

Capybara meat is indeed edible and can be found on the menu in some regions. Capybaras eat aquatic plants and may consume crops. Which causes conflict with local farmers who sometimes hunt them. 

Capybaras face predation from a variety of animals including jaguars, foxes, ocelots, and dogs. Humans also hunt capybaras in certain areas for their meat and skin.

Despite being a unique and somewhat unconventional food source, capybara meat provides sustenance for both humans and wildlife alike.

Miscellaneous facts about capybaras

  • Capybaras are eaten more before Easter because their meat is allowed during Lent.
  • They were hunted in Brazil for their skin until 1969. Now hunting is prohibited there.
  • Capybara hunting is regulated in Venezuela. Locals continue to hunt them for their skin and meat.
  • According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list, Capybaras are not endangered.
  • Capybaras have a sharp set of teeth but they rarely bite humans.
  • You can have Capybara as a pet in some states. Not legal everywhere.



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