Capybara, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris
October 2008

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(McKenna & Bell 1997) (Mead et al 2007)(Rowe & Honeycutt 2002) (Wilson & Reeder 2005) (Wyss. et al 1993) (Kurtén & Anderson 1980)

Describer (Date): Linnaeus, 1766. Systema Naturae, 12th ed., 1:103 for Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris
                           Goldman, 1912. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection, 60(2):11 for H. isthmius
Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
        Class: Mammalia
             Order: Rodentia
                    Family: Hydrochoeridae
                           Genus: Hydrochaeris - Brunnich 1772
                                 Species: Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris
                               Species: H. isthmius

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Common Name

Scientific Name



(Herrera & Macdonald 1989) (Mones & Ojasti 1986) (Verdade &. Ferraz 2006)




(Herrera 1992) (MacDonald 1984) (Mones & Ojasti 1986) (Pereira et al 1980) (Nowak 1999)

Body Weight: Average adult 48.9 kg (108 lb); 35 to 65.5 kg (77 lb to 144 lb) in Venezula's Llano region; a record 91 kg (200 lb) in southern Brazil
Head/Body Length: 106 to 134 cm (42 to 53 in);
Shoulder Height: 60.9 cm (2 ft.)
Tail Length: Tail vestigal


Pelage and Skin

Sexual Dimorphism

Other Physical Characteristics


(Lord-Rexford 1994) (Herrera & Macdonald 1989, 1993)
(Macdonald 1981a, b) (Nowak 1999) (Ojasti 1991) (Rowe and Honeycutt 2002)(Tomazzoni et al 2005)

Activity Cycle

Territory Size

Social Groups



Territorial Behavior


  • Grooming lessens tension between individuals and removes parasites
  • Male aggression more frequent with increasing numbers of males in group
  • Harassment and chasing: main form of male/male aggression
      • Subordinate males rarely retaliate
      • Retaliation involves facing opponent, both animals rushing towards each other, rearing on hind legs, grappling, loser fleeing
      • Subordinate males often suffer serious bites to rump as they flee
      • Most commonly, dominant male walks, nudges, or "escorts" subordinate male to edge of group
  • Young in groups play in water, imitate males
  • Like other cavy-like social rodents, individuals chase each other, play-wrestle, gallop


Visual Signs

  • Greatly enlarged scent glands on top of snout in male signals status & may attract females
  • Size of male's morrillo a sign of rank
  • Amount of scent-marking correlates with dominance rank    


    • Infants and young constantly emit a guttural purr, perhaps to stay in touch with group; losers in aggressive matches also make this sound in appeasement
    • Low clicking sounds of contentment
    • Sharp prolonged whistles, squeals, short grunts
    • Alarm bark or cough
    • Most warning calls come from subordinate males in a group; companions react by standing alert or plunging into nearest water
    • Females emit a whistle when in estrus
    • Males tooth-chatter as sign of aggression
    • Many other closely related species also highly vocal, especially guinea pigs and cavies

    Olfaction/Scent Marking
    • Both sexes scent mark with anal gland; females less frequently
    • Group members may recognize each other by their unique mix of scent chemicals

    • Excellent swimmer; good diver, can stay underwater for up to 5 minutes
    • Move from place to place in short bursts of travel not more than 200 m. (.12 mi.) with long rests between
    • Walks, grazing, in typical day about 700 m (.43 mi)
    • Star-shaped footprints
    • Rather sedentary habits allow ranchers to manage capybara without fences
    • Several juveniles may ride on female's back as she swims

    Interspecies Interaction
    • Puma & jaguar prey on capybara
    • When attacked by wild dogs, capybara group forms defensive huddle with young in center, adults facing outwards
    • Juveniles preyed upon by foxes, ocelots, cayman, raptors, occasional possums (attacking infants), anaconda
    • Co-exist with domestic cattle
    • At least nine species of birds increase their feeding rate by associating with capybara
      • Especially jacana, scarlet ibis, sharp-tailed Ibis, white Ibis, buff-necked ibis, swifts
      • Egrets hunt from moving and stationary capybara's backs
      • Swifts hunt low overhead or from capybara's head
      • Researcher observed capybara soliciting tick-eating (Amblyomma spp.) by yellow-headed caracara
    • Five bird species associated with capybara in order to find food. (Tomazzoni et al 2005)
      • Southern caracara, rufous hornero, cattle tyrant, yellow-headed caracara, shiny cowbird
      • Strategies of the birds included using the capybara as a perch, walking with the capybara to catch flushed prey, foraging in capybara skin


    (Barreto and Herrera 1998) (Borges & Colares) (Nowak 1999) (Quintana et al 1998)

    Anatomy and Physiology

  • Digestive system similar to rabbit's
    • Simple stomach
    • Large intestinal pouch (caecum) with microorganisms for fermenting cellulose
    • Excrete two kinds of feces
      • Olive colored oval balls
      • Also colorless, protein rich "paste" which is re-ingested for maximum digestion of nutrients (= coprophagy)
    • Regurgitate and re-chew food while resting
  • Front incisors crop native grasses too short for cattle

Feeding Strategies and Food Items

  • Are selective grazers; eat approximately 3 kg/day fresh forage, mainly grasses
    • Tend to be more selective when more plant species available
    • 80% of diet is only 5 species of grasses (Poaceae)
    • Most common plant species in areas typically the ones eaten most often, especially in winter when fewer species available
    • Various estimates for amount of aquatic plants in diet from .6 % to 87 %
      • As wet season advances, more reeds and water hyacinths consumed
  • Capybaras raid cultivated fields for grains, melons, squashes, bananas, sweet potatoes, manioc leaves and corn


(Macdonald and Herrera 2001) (Nogueira et al 1999) (Ojasti. 1968) (Paula et al 1999) (Rowlands and Weir 1974) (Weigl 2005)


  • Female estrus cycle: every 7.5 days; remain receptive only 8 hours
  • In mating season, dominant males conspicuously guard females
  • When female in estrus, dominant male sniffs her frequently
  • Female whistles when in estrus to attract males
  • Mating season year round with peak at beginning of wet season


  • One litter/yr; two litters possible under good conditions
  • Harem-based polygynous breeding (one dominant male, several females)
  • Female pursued by male enters water and swims back and forth
    • Pair mates in water; female often submerged for brief copulation
    • Females not wanting to mate may dive deep enough to dislodge male
  • Mating pair often interrupted by a second male
  • Life span of male's sperm longer than that in most rodents; capybara mating system promotes sperm competition
  • Group association essential for raising young; groups smaller than four adults fail to rear any young


  •  150 days

Life Stages    


  • 4 to 5 pups most common; a breeding group may have 15 pups or more at one time
  • At birth young weigh about 1,500 grams (3.3 lb)
  • At birth all cheek teeth already erupted, with signs of wear (Kramarz 2002)
  • Young can follow mother and eat grass shortly after being born (are precocial)
  • Young nurse about 16 weeks

Infant (< 1 year old)

  • Young may suckle indiscriminately from several females;
  • Small groups of young move about herd, nudging females until one stands to allow nursing
  • Very young ride on females' backs'
  • Very young avoid water where caimen and anaconda lurk
  • Females spend a lot of time caring for young of different ages


  •  Yearlings disperse from parents' group


  •  By 18 mos. weigh about 40 kg (88 lb.)


  • Females sexually mature age 7 to 12 mos.
  • Males between 15 and 24 mos.


  •  Average life span 7-10 years;
  • In captivity in the Adelaide Zoo in Australia, 15 years
  • One H. isthmius at the San Diego Zoo: 9 years, 6 mos.


  • Preyed upon by foxes, bush dogs, feral dogs, ocelots, cayman, jaguars, eagles, caracaras, black vultures and human hunters
  • Wild capybara, especially in Venezuela, are poached and illegally hunted more intensely in the weeks before Easter, when they are a sanctioned by the Catholic Church as a substitute for fish (because of their semi-aquatic habits).
  • Jaguars prey most often on young males at the periphery of the group (and furthest from the water)
  • Infanticide in captive populations, but not in wild


(Chapman 1991) (Nogueira et al 1999)

Captive Breeding

  • Zoo-raised capybara have higher survival rate than those in wild
  • Females in captivity reach sexual maturity later than in wild (26 vs. 18 months)
  • Capybaras bred in many zoos and also commercially for meat and skins in South America
  • Some populations managed in natural areas
  • Problems with enclosed or penned individuals
      • Male/male aggression when overcrowded
      • Hierarchical group social structure disrupted when new individuals introduced
      • Infanticide by female pen mates
        • Females' lack of experience not a factor 
        • No infanticide when females have been raised together (are familiar with each other)
        • No aggression by females except at birth of pen mate's young


(Moreira & Macdonald,1996) (Ojasti 1991) (Verdade & Ferraz 2006)

Population Density

  • 195 individuals/sq. km. ( 0.4 sq. mi) in southeastern Brazil wetlands
  • Between 10 and 200 individuals/ sq. km.(0.4 sq mi) in Venezuelan llanos
  • Status in all areas depends on management practices
    • Some areas allow controlled harvest and tolerate subsistence hunting
    • Elsewhere all hunting prohibited but poaching may be common
    • Protections enforced in other areas
    • Management for cattle may improve habitat for capybara
    • Populations considered a potential nuisance in east central Sao Paulo Brazil where they often live near humans
      • Blamed for crop damage
      • Associated with Brazilian Spotted Fever


1953: Hunting regulated in Venezuela
1967: Hunting prohibited in Brazil (Federal Law No. 5.197) but harvesting being considered to reduce population densities and impact on agriculture in some areas
1968: Venezuela develops management plan using studies of capybara biology and ecology
1980: Hunting prohibited in Columbia
2000: Central Suriname Nature Reserve established on North Atlantic coast of South America; 1.592 million hectares ( 6,146 sq mi.)

  • IUCN Status 2006: Lower Risk; Conservation Dependent (1C).
    • Locally common; farmed for meat and skin in some areas
  • CITES Status: Not listed

Threats to survival

  •   Status not threatened at present, but habitat loss and hunting/farming need controls and monitoring
    • Predators' declines due to habitat loss may offer short-term benefit to capybara populations
    • Hunting often removes larger and older individuals from population (large males, pregnant females) and reduces group size
      • Long-term effect: decrease in body size of hunted population
      • Smaller groups mean fewer young survive per female
      • Hunting drives normally savanah-dwelling animals to forested habitats where resources are not optimal
    • Encroachment of human development
    • Clear-cutting/burning, farming
    • Human perception of their role in competing with cattle for food, as pests of sugarcane and rice mono cultures, or as carriers of diseases

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