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What is a Capybara?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2014
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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.

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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.

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