Capybara characteristics, habitat, feeding, behavior

Basil Manning

Capybara, capybara or chigüiro (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is the largest rodent in the Rodentia family. This species is highly social and is seldom solitary, which is why it tends to live in groups where the hierarchy is very well defined. The leader is the dominant male, who watches over and protects the rest of the members of the group.

In relation to the body, it is robust and measures from 1.06 to 1.34 meters. Its coat is dark reddish to brown, with a lighter brown belly. The chigüiro lacks a tail, unlike a large part of the rest of the rodents.

Capybara. Source: Egg [CC BY-SA (]

The hind limbs have three fingers and are longer than the front limbs, which have four fingers. All the toes are joined by a membrane, so that their legs are semi-palmate.

Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris It is an endemic mammal of South America, where it is distributed in various areas of the countries of that continent, with the exception of Chile.

Its habitat is strongly associated with bodies of water, where it reproduces and dives to protect itself from predators. Among the preferred ecosystems are wetlands, flooded grasslands and the edges of swamps.

Article index

  • 1 General characteristics
    • 1.1 Size
    • 1.2 Skin
    • 1.3 Body
    • 1.4 Head
    • 1.5 Sebaceous gland
    • 1.6 Communication and perception
  • 2 Conservation status
  • 3 Habitat and distribution
    • 3.1 Distribution
    • 3.2 Habitat
  • 4 Taxonomy
  • 5 Food
  • 6 Digestive system
    • 6.1 Teething
    • 6.2 Digestive tract
    • 6.3 Food optimization
  • 7 Playback
  • 8 Behavior
    • 8.1 Social structure
  • 9 References

General characteristics


The capybara is the largest rodent in the world. The adult grows between 106 and 134 centimeters, with a height at the withers that measures 50 to 62 centimeters. Regarding the weight, this ranges between 35 and 66 kilograms.

According to experts, the size and weight are higher in the species that live to the south. Thus, in the Colombian and Venezuelan plains, the Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris it has a body mass of 45 to 50 kilograms, while in southern Brazil and Argentina, the animal exceeds 80 kilograms.

This notable difference could be related to the abundance and quality of pastures, which increase in the southern regions of the continent..


The epidermis has numerous folds and cavities, thus giving it a wavy appearance. In relation to the dermis, it is made up of hair follicles, organized in groups of three. Each of these has an associated sweat gland. This particularity differentiates the capybara from the rest of the rodents.

Each of the hairs emerges at an angle. In addition, the hair follicle has a sebaceous gland.


The body of the Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris it is robust and covered with hairs, which measure from 30 to 120 millimeters. The color of the coat varies from reddish to dark brown, turning yellowish brown on the belly. In some species the face has a darker tone.

In relation to the extremities, they are short, considering the body volume of the animal. The posterior ones are longer than the previous ones, allowing the capybara to make a rapid starting movement..

Thus, it can escape from a predator or capture its prey in a surprising way. Also, when the animal is at rest, it can stand up on its hind legs.

The front extremities have four fingers and the rear three. The fingers have thick and strong nails. In addition, these are joined by membranes, causing the legs to be partially webbed..

This species lacks a tail, a structure that is present in almost all rodents. In replacement of this, it has a skin fold, which hides the external genitalia and the anus.


The chigüire, as it is known in Venezuela, has a broad head. The muzzle is large and flattened, with a cleft upper lip. As for the ears, they are small, hairless and mobile.

The nostrils, ears, and eyes are located on the top of the head. This is an adaptation that allows the animal to submerge and keep these organs out of the water.

Oil gland

This rodent has a sebaceous gland, located in the upper region of the head. This structure is made up of cells that secrete a sticky white substance, which is used to demarcate the territory.

It looks like a large, dark-colored bump or wart. In the male, it becomes visible from the first year of life and continues to develop until it reaches 8 to 10 centimeters..

Communication and perception

Vocalization is a very important way of communicating for capybaras. During the fulfillment of their daily activities, juveniles frequently emit various sounds. Such behavior is also quite common among adults.

This rodent emits a loud call, similar to a bark, to warn the group of a serious threat. In this way, the herd rushes to go to the body of water and dive into it, in search of shelter..

In addition, if the chigüiro detects the presence of a predator, it begins to vocalize a terrifying bark. This is done continuously until the animal withdraws or until the rest of the group is protected in the water..

As for the females, when they are in heat they emit a kind of hiss. They do this in order to attract males. This call is repeatedly vocalized, until the male begins to approach the female. The young and the young also have a call, letting the mother know that they need it..

In the following video you can see a family of capybaras in their natural habitat:

State of conservation

Capybara populations are declining, mainly due to their indiscriminate hunting. This situation has caused the IUCN to categorize the Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris within the group of animals that are at low risk of extinction.

The main threat that afflicts this species is hunting, to commercialize its meat and skin, both in national and international markets. Also, she is killed by the breeders, considering that she has a grazing competition with the cattle..

The capybara habitat is overlapping in many of the regions that are under the conservationist protection of public or private entities..

Habitat and distribution


Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris it has a strictly South American distribution. Thus, its range is extended to the east of Colombia, Suriname, Venezuela, French Guyana and Guyana. Also, it is in the Amazon region of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil. Towards the south of the continent, it is located in Uruguay, Paraguay and in the north of Argentina.


In relation to habitat, the capybara lives in areas where there are bodies of water, which it can easily access. Thus, among the preferred ecosystems are flooded grasslands, lowland forests and the edges of swamps.

Also, it is found all along the banks, wetlands, marshy lands, bushes and grasslands near lakes, ponds or rivers..

During the winter season, the chigüiro uses the entire area to rest and to graze. When summer arrives, the animal congregates around the swamps and streams, in search of food and to cool its body from the heat..

Another reason why this species lives near water is that it can enter the river and submerge for several minutes. In this way it hides from the attack of predators. In addition, the capybara covers its body with mud, to avoid infestation with some species of mites..


-Animal Kingdom.

-Subkingdom: Bilateria.

-Phylum: Chordate.

-Subfilum: Vertebrate.

-Infrafilum: Gnathostomata

-Superclass: Tetrapoda

-Class: Mammal.

-Subclass: Theria.

-Infraclass: Eutheria.

-Order: Rodentia.

-Suborder: Hystricomorpha.

-Infraorder: Hystricognathi.

-Family: Caviidae.

-Subfamily: Hydrochoerinae.

-Genus: Hydrochoerus.

-Species: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris.


The capybara is a herbivore that needs to consume about 3 kilograms of fresh forage daily. This animal has a selective diet, since it generally chooses plants that have a high nutritional content.

In this sense, despite the great variety of plant species that are present in their habitat, usually only 14.8% represent the diet of capybaras. However, when the animal is forced to eat shrubs of less nutritional value, the number of plant species increases..

This rodent mainly consumes grasses and various aquatic plants. However, it can occasionally eat fruit and tree bark. Food varies according to the seasons.

Thus, in the rainy season it prefers herbs, while in the dry season it eats reeds, a plant that is abundant at that time of year. In addition, during the summer, due to the scarcity of green vegetation, the capybara usually invades livestock areas, competing with cattle for food sources..

Digestive system


Like the rest of the rodents, this species has four incisor teeth that are highly developed. These are long, hard, and sharp. In addition, they grow continuously. Between these teeth and the first molar there is a space, known as the diastema.

On each side of the jaw it has 4 molars, with flattened chewing surfaces. This characteristic, together with the strong muscles of the jaw, allows the chewing of food to be effective.

This translates into greater efficiency in the process of obtaining nutritional substances and in the digestive action of microbial agents..

Digestive tract

The esophagus has a cornified epithelium. This food adaptation prevents the forage, during its passage through this tube, from causing damage to the organ. The capybara has a single stomach, characterized by having a large number of parietal cells, responsible for producing hydrochloric acid.

This substance prevents the proliferation of bacteria, in addition to contributing to the degradation of organic compounds.

In relation to the small intestine, it has highly developed villi, which provide a high level of absorption of nutrients. The large intestine has similar characteristics to the rest of mammals.

However, the cecum has numerous folds, so the absorption of water and hydrolyzed components is much more effective.

Food optimization

The Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris It is characterized by having some eating behaviors that contribute to the efficiency of the absorption and degradation process of the organic compounds that make up the plant material..

Thus, this rodent is coprophagous, since it consumes its own feces. In this way, it helps in the digestive process of cellulose. Also, it allows the extraction of vitamins and proteins that were not processed during the digestion of food..

The capybara excretes two different types of feces, some are oval and olive green in color and the others are pasty and light in color. The latter contain around 37% more protein than the other stools. When the animal ingests them, these nutritional substances are degraded, and can be assimilated by the body.

Also, this mammal can regurgitate food. Thus, it chews the pre-digested food again, contributing to a better use of the vitamins and minerals it contains..


The sexual maturity of the capybara occurs around 18 months of life, when the animal weighs approximately 30 kilograms. This rodent reproduces throughout the year, however, the maximum mating activity is during the beginning of the rainy season.

When the female is in heat, her scent changes. This causes the male to start chasing her around the lake or river. The dominant male will try to keep the other males away, to prevent the female from joining. However, due to the large size of the herd, this action is not always successful..

Thus, the female can choose to mate with the leader or with a subordinate. As for copulation, it takes place in the water. Once the female is fertilized by the male, fetal development lasts about 130 to 150 days..

The birth of the young, in litters ranging from 1 to 8, occurs on land. A few hours later, the newborns begin to stand and walk. After a week they eat alone, although they are weaned at 4 months. Young people stay with their parents until they are one year old.

In this video you can see a capybara giving birth:


The chigüiro moves with agility on the ground, however, it is an excellent swimmer. It can stay underwater for up to five minutes, a skill it uses to escape threats. Likewise, it is able to sleep in the water, since the morphology of its head allows it to keep its nose, eyes and ears out of the lake..

Social structure

This species is gregarious, being able to form groups of up to 30 animals, although in the summer up to 100 capybaras can gather around a body of water. The grouping is formed by a dominant male, adult female, subadult male and female, juveniles and the young.

There is a strict hierarchy among males, imposed by persecuting behaviors and not by aggressive encounters, although these could eventually occur. Each grouping maintains and defends its territory, which includes the place to wallow in the mud and the feeding site..

The male hierarch of the group is the main one in charge of marking the terrain. For this, it uses the sebaceous glands, which it rubs against the stems and bushes. Other members of the group can contribute to this action, but they do so sporadically..

On the other hand, this species also uses its urine to define its home range. Thus, in addition to alerting other groups, the brands help the herd to stay within its own group..


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