Sometimes weighing as much an adult human, the capybara is the world’s largest rodent. The capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), which with its brown fur resembles a giant guinea pig, can grow up to 1.3 meters (4 feet 4 inches) in length and weigh anything from 35 to 66 kilograms (77 to 145 pounds). Males tend to be much larger than females.
This remarkable creature is often seen wallowing on the banks of the Tambopata River by visitors traveling by boat through the Reserve area and surrounding forests. As a semi-aquatic rodent, the capybara is an excellent swimmer, and one of its favored ways of avoiding capture by the jaguars, anacondas and caimans that are its only natural enemies is employing its ability to remain underwater for up to five minutes at a time. The capybara itself is vegetarian, feeding on grass, aquatic plants and occasionally bark and fruits. The name “capybara” comes from the indigenous Tupi language, and means “eater of grasses”. Their scientific name (“hydrochaeris”) comes from the Greek for “water hog”.
The capybara inhabits areas close to water sources, including riverbanks, streams, swamps and estuaries. It lives for between six and ten years in the wild, and females will usually produce between 2 and 8 pups in a single litter. Although it has been hunted traditionally for its meat and fur, the capybara is not considered an endangered species (it is currently classified as “Least Concern”), and they are found throughout the forests and plains of the Amazon basin, from Venezuela and Colombia to the north of Argentina.
Capybaras are known as coprophagous animals, meaning that they are in the habit of eating their own feces. They do this to obtain maximum nutrition from their plant-based diet. They are highly social animals and have been known to live in groups of up to thirty individuals, although most groups tend to number around ten. Their tendency to live in groups appears to be intended as a strategy against the major predators that hunt them in the forests of the Amazon. Within these groups, males are hierarchical and compete –often aggressively- to mate with the females of the group. Bonds between members of a group are maintained through vocalizations (ranging from a soft purring to loud barking or “coughing”), touching, grooming and scent-marking, and groups will defend their territories against other groups.
Along with the North American beaver, in the 17th century the semi-aquatic capybara was classed by the Catholic Church as a fish, so that it could be eaten on Fridays during Lent. To this day, it is commonly eaten during Lent in parts of Venezuela.