12 Capybara Facts [Are They Giant Guinea Pigs? & More]

Capybara with yellow-headed caracara
Capybara (Hydrochoeris hydrochaeris) with yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima), Pantanal, Brazil.

The capybara is a cute South American mammal in the rodent family who resembles a giant guinea pig or marmot. However, capybaras have their own distinguishable qualities that have helped them to survive, as well to intrigue people all over the world. Here are some frequently asked questions and interesting facts about these special creatures.

1. How big are capybaras?

Capybaras are the world’s largest rodent. In fact, they’re twice the size of beavers, who are the second largest rodents. Large females can weigh as much as 200 pounds (91 kg) but generally they range from 77-146 pounds. And they’re about 20 inches tall (51 cm).

2. Where do capybaras live?

Capybaras’ natural habitat is in South America. In fact, their range includes
Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Columbia, all the way to Argentina. They are mostly found near water, such as in marshes and flood grasslands. But they also graze in lowland forests and scrub.

3. Do capybaras swim?

Capybara submerged in water

While it’s hard to imagine a guinea pig swimming, like beavers, capybaras love the water. In fact, their scientific name – Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris – comes from the Greek term Hydro chaeris, which means “water hog.”

Capybaras have evolved to live a semi-aquatic lifestyle, being equally adept at moving around on land as in water. Their partially webbed toes enable them to walk and swim in marshy, muddy wetlands. Plus, they’re strong swimmers. They can remain submerged underwater for up to five minutes at a time, which comes in handy when evading predators.

Capybaras like to cool off from the Amazon heat by snoozing in the water, most often facing the river bank. Like hippos, their eyes, noses, and ears are located at the top of their head, making it easy to keep these important sensory organs above the surface of the water. This helps them to stay alert to predators or other interlopers in their territory.

4. Are capybaras fast?

While they in no way resemble cheetahs, capybaras are fast runners. In fact, they can reach speeds of 21 mph (34 km per hour) on land. That’s about as fast as your average dog. This is impressive given the capybara’s large head and top-heavy body.

Here’s a video from Lev Serebryakov that shows just how fast capybaras can run:

5. What do capybaras eat?

Capybaras are herbivores, eating a diet mainly of grasses and water plants. In fact, an adult can eat up to 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of grasses every day. During the dry season, capybaras will eat other plant foods, including reeds and grains, as well as melon and squash.

Eating Their Own Poop

You may have heard the rumor, but in case not – capybaras are also known to eat their own poop. As gross as that sounds, there are nutritional benefits for them to do so. Re-ingesting partially digested grass matter enables them to get additional nutrition from hard-to-digest grasses that they didn’t get the first time around. There are also
microbes in the poop, which helps to boost the amount of healthy bacteria in their guts, which in turn supports their immune system.

Long, Sharp Teeth that Continue to Grow

As is the case with other rodents, capybara’s teeth don’t stop growing. However, their teeth get worn down as the capybara munches on grass, plants, and other vegetation. If capybaras don’t wear them down from munching, their teeth can grow to become excessively long, making it impossible for the capybara to eat at all.

6. What sound do capybaras make?

As you may have heard in the previous video, capybaras are quite vocal, possessing a repertoire of sounds they use to express themselves and communicate with the other members of their herd.

Capybara sounds range from clicking and purring sounds when they’re content to sharp whistling, squealing, and grunting, as well as barking or coughing, presumably when they’re distressed. Female capybaras will emit whistling sounds to attract males. And when males are feeling aggressive, they gnash their teeth.

Here’s an audio clip from the BBC on capybara sounds.

7. Are capybaras friendly?

Capybara with jacana
Capybara with a jacana bird catching a ride. Photo: Denis Doukhan.

Capybaras are known to be incredibly friendly animals. And not only do humans find them adorable, other animals gravitate to them as well. With their mellow and amicable dispositions, capybaras will tolerate other animals, including birds and monkeys, perching on their backs. These relationships are often symbiotic, as the other animal will get a free ride while grooming and plucking insects from the capybara.

Highly Sociable

Capybaras live in large social groups, called herds, of 10-20 animals. However, if water habitats become scarce, they might congregate in groups of 100. This sociable behavior offers capybaras protection from predators, while improving their chances of finding a mate, both of which help to preserve their species.

Mating

When it comes to courting among capybaras, the female calls the shots. She will whistle through her nose to attract males when she’s in estrus. During this time she is closely guarded by the dominant male in the herd, however other males in the herd will try to win her favor.

It Takes a Village

Female capybaras typically have one litter of about four pups per year. The pups are weaned in about four months. Capybaras practice a behavior called alloparenting, which means females in the herd will take care of their own pups as well as the pups of other females.

Capybara with pup
Capybara with pup.

8. How long do capybaras live?

The average lifespan of a capybara is 8-10 years.

9. Do capybaras have predators?

Capybaras have quite a few natural predators. These include eagles, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and caimans (in the alligator family), as well as green anaconda snakes.

We humans are also their predators. In the kind of twisted reasoning that only humans are capable of, some Venezuelan clergymen submitted a request to the Vatican asking that capybara be designated as fish because their meat, apparently, tastes like fish. (To be clear, capybaras are mammals; not fish.)

The reason for the request was to allow Catholics to eat capybara during Lent, which is typically a period when Catholics avoid eating red meat. (Unfortunately, the priests missed UniGuide’s post on vegan seafood.)

Capybaras are also exploited for medical research. Researchers discovered that capybaras’ immune systems are genetically programmed to detect and destroy cells that are dividing too quickly – a biological mechanism that can prevent cancer. Thus, capybaras have raised the interest of medical researchers.

10. Are capybaras endangered?

Capybaras lounging near the water

Today, capybara populations are stable, and they are listed as a species of Least
Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

However, capybaras were once hunted so heavily in Venezuela for their meat that they did face extinction. Thankfully, focused conservation measures helped their populations to rebound. Similarly, in Brazil, capybaras are hunted for their skin, as well as meat, but the practice is now more regulated than it was decades ago.

Other Threats

Like other wild animals around the world, capybaras face threats from habitat loss. These losses stem from deforestation from burning and expanding areas for agriculture, as well as encroaching human development. Loss of habitat can make it harder for capybaras to find enough nutritional food and it impacts breeding success. Furthermore, capybaras are seen by some people as pests who compete with cattle for food and water and who are destructive to crops, like sugarcane, and rice plantations.

11. Do capybaras make good pets?

Capybaras are known to be friendly and gentle creatures. And they are legal in some U.S. states. However, they are still wild animals, thus very different from dogs and cats, who have been domesticated and living with humans for centuries. Furthermore, capybaras are highly sociable animals who are used to living in large herds. So, isolating them from their natural community of other capybaras would be unnecessarily cruel. If you can imagine aliens coming down and taking you away from your family and friends and making you live with them, you can imagine what a capybara might feel like not being with their herd.

Luckily, there are other ways you can enjoy capybaras. There are plenty of YouTube videos with capybaras, as well as Instagram feeds dedicated to them. (Though in both cases, you’ll see capybaras in their natural habitats as well as domesticated situations.)

12. How can I help capybaras?

Capybara and pups

A number of nonprofits are working to protect capybaras and their natural habitats. Here are a few:

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