Semiaquatic rodent (Hydrochoerus hyrdrochaeris) of Central and South America. Classified as the only species in its family, it is related to the cavy and the guinea pig. Capybaras are the largest living rodents, growing as large as 50 in. (1.25 m) long and weighing 110 lbs (50 kg) or more. They are sparsely haired and brownish, with a blunt snout, short legs, small ears, and almost no tail. Capybaras are shy and associate in groups along the banks of lakes and rivers. Herbivorous, they can become pests when they eat cultivated melons, grain, and squash. They swim and dive readily and commonly enter water to elude predators.
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Capybaras have heavy, barrel-shaped bodies and short heads with reddish-brown fur on the upper part of their body that turns yellowish-brown underneath. Adult capybaras may grow to , and weigh up to . Capybaras have slightly webbed feet, no tail, and 20 teeth. Their back legs are slightly longer than their front legs and their muzzles are blunt with eyes, nostrils, and ears on top of their head. Females are slightly heavier than males.
Though now extinct, there once existed larger capybaras that were eight times the size of modern capybaras (these rodents would have been larger than a grizzly bear). There is also a "lesser capybara", Hydrochoerus isthmius.
Capybara have an extremely efficient digestive system that sustains the animal while 75% of its diet encompasses only 3-6 species of plants.
Capybaras are coprophagous, meaning they eat their own feces as a source of bacterial gut flora and in order to help digest the cellulose in the grass that forms their normal diet and extract the maximum protein from their food. Additionally, they may regurgitate food to masticate the food again, similar to cud-chewing by a cow.
Capybaras are social animals, usually found in groups, between 10 and 30 (though larger groups of up to 100 sometimes can be formed), controlled by a dominant male (who will have a prominent scent gland on his nose used for smearing his scent on the grasses in his territory.) They communicate through a combination of scent and sound, being very vocal animals with purrs and alarm barks, whistles and clicks, squeals and grunts.
Capybaras are excellent swimmers and can survive completely underwater for up to five minutes, an ability they will use to evade predators. If necessary, a Capybara can sleep underwater, keeping its nose just at the waterline.
During midday, as temperatures increase, Capybaras wallow in water to keep cool and then graze in late afternoons and early evenings. They sleep little, usually dozing off and on throughout the day and grazing into and through the night.
Capybaras are hunted for their meat and pelts in some areas, and otherwise killed by humans who see their grazing as competition for livestock. The skins are particularly prized for making fine gloves because of its unusual characteristic of stretching in just one direction. In some areas they are farmed, which has the effect of ensuring that the wetland habitats are protected. Their survival is aided by their ability to breed rapidly.
During the Christian celebration of Lent, capybara meat is especially popular as it is claimed that the Catholic church, in a special dispensation, classified the animal as a fish in the 16th century. There are differing accounts of how the dispensation arose. The most cited refers to a group of 16th Century missionaries who made a request which implied that the semi-aquatic capybara might be a fish and also hinted that there would be an issue with starvation if the animal wasn't classified as suitable for lent.