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In today’s installment of Wildlife Wednesday we will discuss the unique capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). Originally from South America, the capybara is considered an exotic species here in Florida.
A giant cavy rodent, the capybara is the largest of the rodent species in the world. Adults can grow up to 4.4 feet long and 2 feet tall weighing up to 146 pounds, though the average is closer to 110. In this species, females are larger than males, with the largest recorded female weighing 201lbs and the largest male weighing 162. Because they are semi aquatic, their feet are webbed which aids them in their excellent ability to swim. Capybara flourish in warm areas where fresh water and woodlands are available. They are highly social usually living in groups of 10-20 but as many as 100 have been witnessed. Their home range is usually 25 acres of preferred habitat. These large herbivores (plant eaters) eat mostly grasses and aquatic plants, while diving for the latter, capybara are able to hold their breath for up to 5 minutes. In addition to herbaceous plants, they’ll also eat both fruits and tree bark. As season change the availability of flora, the capybara changes it’s diet to include what is readily available. Because it’s diet is high in cellulose, they’ve employed additional methods with which to break down plant material for energy. First, they are autocoprophagous meaning that they eat their own fecal matter. This helps them accumulate beneficial digestive bacteria to break down cellulose. Secondly, they regurgitate food to further masticate (chew) thus breaking down the food and creating increased surface area for the bacteria to digest. Even in spite of all of these extra digestive efforts, capybara, like their family member the guinea pig can not synthesize vitamin c. So, this kept in captivity must be supplemented or they will get scurvy like the sailors of old.
This species is gregarious and often live in family groups where the female adults out number the males, the rest are juvenile offspring. These family groups of up to an average of 20 are highly social and during the dry season when water holes are more scarce, up to 100 individuals may congregate together.
Both sexes of capybara have scent glands, although the glands on the male are larger and more frequently used. The morrillo gland is located on the nose, the other glands are in the animal’s anus. They use these glands for territory communication and mating. During estrus females have a change in the scent they produce. This plus a whistling sound produced in her nose, let males know that she is ready to mate. She also has her choice of mate due to the fact that they exclusively mate in water. If she finds a pursuing male unsatisfactory she will walk out of the water or fully submerge herself. This is one of the times she may utilize her ability to hold her breath for up to five minutes. While there may be a dominant male in a family group, female choice does allow mating of subordinates. This plus the longer life of sperm by comparison to other rodents, allows for greater genetic diversity created by successful breeding of subordinate males. If mating is successful the gestation period (pregnancy) ranges from 130 to 150 days, after which 1-8 pups may be produced, with an average litter size of 4. The female gives birth on dry land then rejoins her group, the young join soon after. Capybaras practice Alloparenting (Care of unrelated young) and the pups will nurse off of any lactating female in the group. In the first week they start grazing but continue to nurse until 4 months old, at which point they wean and stay within a subgroup of all the young in the main family group. In nature, capybara live up to 6 years, but in captivity their life span can be twice that.
Other populations of capybara exist outside of their native ranges. These are often do to pets escaping captivity.
Sightings have been recorded even here in Florida and 3 times at Crowley Museum & Nature Center. They thrive in our area due to their ability to live equally well in both water and on land. Capybara are even able to sleep underwater with their nostrils just at the surface. In some areas, they are raised for their pelts and meat although caution must be used since their ticks can carry vector diseases. As with all Wildlife we caution that you observe from a safe distance. Also, since these are exotic species we ask that you do not release them. If you see a capybara please report it to FWCC
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