Agouti is the common name for any of twelve species of rodents native to the forests of Central and South America. Across their different species, agoutis vary in color, from brown to red, gray or even black. Agoutis are related to guinea pigs, which they resemble, although they are larger than guinea pigs and have longer legs. The overall effect of their appearance and behavior is reminiscent of squirrels, although agoutis don’t have long bushy tails! Depending on their individual species, agoutis will grow to between 40 and 76 centimeters in length (approximately 16 to 30 inches) and weigh anything from 2.5 to 6 kilograms (between 5 and 13 pounds). Another relative of the agouti is the paca.
In the wild, agoutis are timid creatures. However, they have a reputation for becoming easily accustomed to the presence of humans, and easily tamed. At our own Tambopata Ecolodge, in the forests of southeastern Peru, agoutis are seen by all guests to our lodge, and can often be spotted venturing into the gardens surrounding the lodge buildings! Agoutis are fast-moving animals, trotting gracefully on tiptoe, springing agilely as they move through the forest understory, and sitting on their hind legs and clutching food in their front paws when they stop to feed.
Agoutis tend to feed on fallen fruit, and although they prefer to remain among the undergrowth on the forest floor where they feel safest and most at home, they will also climb into mid-level rainforest in search of unripe fruits. Agoutis also feed on leaves and roots.
Across their different species, agoutis tend to be most active during the day, although they have been known to adopt more nocturnal habits in areas where they feel threatened. Agoutis can be seen gathering in large numbers when feeding. When they are not feeding, they will seek refuge in hollow tree trunks, or in shallow burrows among root systems.
Breeding pairs of agoutis will remain together for life. Female agoutis give birth to one or two young at a time, in their customary sleeping spots. Agoutis are born extremely well-developed, and become fully active very quickly. On their first day after birth, agoutis are taken by their mother to potential refuge sites on the forest floor, where the young prepare their own nests with leaves and twigs. Because the young build nests small enough to protect themselves from predators, their mother cannot visit them. Instead, she calls them every morning and evening to feed. In the wild, agoutis can live for up to twenty years.
Agoutis are known as an Amazon rainforest keystone species because in the forests of both Brazil and southeastern Peru, brazil nut trees depend on agoutis and their strong, sharp teeth to open their extremely hard seedpods and ensure the dispersal of their seeds. Without the agouti to disperse their seeds, and orchid bees to pollinate their flowers, there would be no brazil nut trees in the forests of the Amazon basin!