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Capybara

[kap-uh-bahr-uh]
Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris ), also known as capibara, chigüire in Venezuela, chigüiro, carpincho, and majas in Spanish, and capivara in Portuguese, is the largest living rodent in the world. It is related to agouti, chinchillas, coyphillas, and guinea pigs. Its common name, derived from Kapiÿva in the Guarani language, means "master of the grasses" while its scientific name, hydrochaeris, is Greek for "water hog".

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.

Development

Capybaras reach sexual maturity within 22 months and breed when conditions are perfect, which can be once per year (such as in Brazil) or throughout the year (such as in Venezuela and Colombia). The male pursues a female and mounts when the female stops in water. Capybara gestation is 130–150 days and usually produces a litter of four capybara babies, but may produce between two and eight in a single litter. Birth is on land and the female will rejoin the group within a few hours of delivering the newborn capybaras, who will join the group as soon as they are mobile. Within a week the young can eat grass, but will continue to suckle - from any female in the group - until weaned at about 16 weeks. Youngsters will form a group within the main group. The rainy season of April and May mark the peak breeding season. Like other rodents, the front teeth of capybaras grow continually to compensate for the constant wearing-down from eating grasses; their cheek teeth also grow continuously. When fully grown, a capybara will have coarse hair that is sparsely spread over their skin, making the capybara prone to sunburn. To prevent this, they may roll in mud to protect their skin from the sun.

Capybara have an extremely efficient digestive system that sustains the animal while 75% of its diet encompasses only 3-6 species of plants.

Habitat

Capybara are semi-aquatic mammals found wild in much of South America (including Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, French Guyana, Uruguay, Peru, and Paraguay) in densely forested areas near bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, swamps, ponds and marshes, such as flooded savannah and along rivers in tropical forest. They roam in home ranges of 25–50 acres (10–20 ha).

Diet

Capybara is an herbivore (more specifically, a graminivore), grazing mainly on grasses and aquatic plants, as well as fruit and tree bark. An adult capybara will eat 6 to 8 pounds (2.7 to 3.6 kg) of grasses per day. Capybara's jaw hinge is non-perpendicular and they thus chew food by grinding back and forth rather than side-to-side.

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.

Behavior

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.

Conservation

Capybara are not on the IUCN list and so not considered a threatened species; their population is stable through most of their South American ranges, though in some areas hunting has reduced their numbers. They have a lifespan of 4-8 years in the wild but average a life less than four years as they are \"a favourite food of anacondas, jaguar, puma, ocelot, eagle and caiman\".

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.

Capybaras can be found in many areas in zoos and parks, sometimes allowed to roam freely and may live for 12 years in captivity.

Human interaction

Capybaras are gentle and will usually allow humans to pet and hand-feed them. Capybara skin is tough, and thus in some areas where capybaras are wild, they are hunted for meat and their skin, which is turned into a high-quality leather, while some ranchers hunt them for fear of the competition for grazing. The meat is said to look and taste like pork. The Capybara meat is dried and salted, then shredded and seasoned. Considered a delicacy, it is often served with rice and plantains.

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.

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