How similar are guinea pigs and capybaras

The Capybara or Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is a species of mammal and the largest living rodent on earth.

It lives in humid regions in South America and shows certain similarities to the hippopotamus in its physique and in its semi-aquatic (partly in the water) way of life, but is closely related to the guinea pigs.


Capybaras are mostly in the water, the webbed feet between their toes help them move quickly. Ears, eyes and nose run in one line, similar to the caiman. This means that they do not have to stick their heads out completely when swimming and their numerous enemies can hardly spot them. The sex of these animals is not easy to determine because their sex organs are located inside the body and there is no pronounced sexual dimorphism.

Build and coat

The body of the Capybaras is massive and clumsy, a stocky trunk contrasts with short limbs. The front legs end in four and the rear legs in three toes, each arranged radially. The hoof-like thickened toes are connected by small webbed feet. The tail has receded. Capybaras reach a head-torso length of 100 to 130 centimeters and a shoulder height of 50 to 60 centimeters, whereby the females are slightly larger than the males. The average weight is 50 kilograms for males and 61 kilograms for females; the weight range can be between 27 and 80 kilograms.

The fur is long and rough, but in places so thin that the skin shows through. Its color varies from red-brown to gray on the upper side, the underside is yellowish-brown in color. Some animals have black spots on the face, outside of the limbs, and on the trunk. The length of the hair is 30 to 120 millimeters.

Head and teeth

The skull of the capybara is very similar to that of the related guinea pigs except for the dimensions
Detail view of the incisors

Capybaras have a noticeably broad and massive head. The muzzle is enlarged and rounded compared to its close relatives, the nostrils are small and set wide apart. In male animals, the tip of the snout is hairless and has a noticeable scent gland. The ears are small and round, the eyes are arranged on the side and are also small. As with many animals, some of which live in water, the eyes, ears and nostrils are high on the head so that the animals hardly stick out of the water when they breathe or look out.

The tooth formula of the animals is 1-0-1-3, which means one incisor, one premolar and three molars per half of the jaw, for a total of 20 teeth. The white incisors are provided with a longitudinal furrow, they are enlarged, as in all rodents, and transformed into rootless incisor teeth, behind which there is a gap known as the diastema. The molars are also rootless and complex: they consist of heart-shaped or strip-shaped enamel prisms, which are separated by layers of dental cement.

Distribution area and habitat

Capybaras have a two-part distribution area. The smaller part is in eastern Panama, northern Colombia and northwestern Venezuela. The greater part covers almost all of South America east of the Andes and extends from eastern Venezuela and the Guyana states to Uruguay and northeastern Argentina. According to the divided distribution area, two subspecies are distinguished: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris isthmius inhabits the northwestern part. It's a little smaller than Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris hydrochaeristhat populates most of South America east of the Andes.

Distribution area of ​​the capybaras

The habitats of the capybaras are different, but the animals make some demands on their habitat. They depend on the proximity of lakes, ponds, rivers, swamps or mangrove forests. They also need solid ground as a place to sleep, ideally with thick vegetation as protection. They like to go to grassy savannah areas to eat. They reach their highest population densities in the extensive wetlands of South America such as the Pantanal and the Llanos region in the north of the continent, through which the Orinoco flows. Most of them live in the lowlands, but can also be found in areas up to 1,300 meters above sea level. Capybaras are relatively tolerant of habitat changes by humans compared to other South American species and can, to some extent, survive in areas that have been converted into plantations or pastures.

Way of life


Capybaras are predominantly crepuscular. They spend the heat of the day in mud holes or shallow water. When they go to sleep they retreat into the thicket. They don't dig burrows. In areas where they are disturbed by humans, however, they switch to a nocturnal way of life.

When threatened, Capybaras often hide in the water

If there is danger, they can run quickly, but if possible flee into a body of water. They are excellent swimmers. They are almost completely submerged in the water, with only the eyes and the tip of the nose sticking out. Sometimes they are also hidden in dense aquatic vegetation. But you can also cover long distances by diving. However, the deep water only serves them as an escape room. Most activities take place in shallow water or on land.

Social behavior

Capybaras live in herds, which can consist of a couple with offspring or a larger group of several adult animals. The group size is six to twenty animals. Occasionally one also meets solitary animals, which are almost always adult males.

The herd size and the way of life depend on the season and the habitat. In the rainy season, capybaras spread over a large area, reducing the group size. They eat a lot during this time and build up a store of fat. The rearing of the young takes place mainly in the rainy season. In the dry season, many animals gather around the larger rivers and lakes, forming larger groups. Mortality is significantly higher during this time, as hunger and disease increase and the animals are increasingly becoming victims of predators due to the decrease in protective vegetation. Studies from Venezuela show an average group size of 5.6 animals during the rainy season and 15.9 in March, the driest month. In pronounced periods of drought, herds of up to 100 animals can form, which gather around the remaining waters. Such alliances are unstable and only last a short time.

Frontal view of a capybara

A family group or herd is led by a dominant male who often holds his position for years. There are also one or more females with their young. Subordinate males can also be part of a herd. The ranking is usually stable and hierarchically structured for both sexes. It is established with sometimes aggressive fights.

One group inhabits a territory of around 80 to 200 hectares. However, the animals usually stay in a core area of ​​around 10 hectares in size, which is defended against invading conspecifics. The territory is marked by scent glands; In the male, as mentioned, they are above the nose and in both sexes in the anal region (anal glands).

Capybaras communicate with one another using a series of sounds. These include a purr-like sound that signals submission, a barking alarm call, clicks expressing satisfaction, shrill whistles and grunts.


The diet of the capybaras consists mainly of grasses that they eat on the mainland, occasionally supplemented by aquatic plants. Sometimes they invade plantations and eat, for example, sugar cane, watermelons or corn. The occasional claim that fish are also part of their diet is wrong.

Capybaras have some adaptations to their diet in the construction of their digestive system. These include an elongated stomach and a sack-shaped enlarged appendix. Similar to some other rodents (e.g. guinea pigs) or rabbits, they practice coprophagy, the repeated eating of the faeces: the appendix faeces, a soft, sticky form of the faeces, the material of which is fermented with the help of special bacteria in the appendix Consumed again immediately after excretion. In this way, the animals can use the hard-to-digest, cellulose-containing food in the best possible way. The feces that arise after digestion are oval and dry, they are not reabsorbed.

Capybaras, like guinea pigs, cannot produce vitamin C themselves, so their needs must be met through food. Cases of scurvy have been observed in animals in captivity, apparently improperly fed.


The male initiates mating by following the female, first on land and later swimming in the water. Mating then takes place in shallow water. After six to ten quick thrusts, the act is complete. This process can be repeated up to 20 times with the same or a different partner within a short period of time.

File: Capybara Ueno Zoo 2009.ogv Mating can take place all year round. Most births, however, occur in the rainy season (April to May in northern South America and October in the south of the continent). The female usually has one litter per year, but with favorable climatic conditions it can be two. The gestation period is around 110 days for the northern subspecies and around 150 days for the southern. Capybaras are multipara, the litter size averages four newborns and can vary between one and eight. The females have ten teats, which are arranged in pairs on the belly.

The animals do not create nests. Birth can take place anywhere in their territory. The newborns are decidedly fleeing nests, have a birth weight of around 1.5 kilograms, are completely hairy and are already born with their permanent teeth. The young can already eat grass shortly after birth. They are finally weaned at three to four months. Both sexes reach sexual maturity at around 15 to 18 months.

The life expectancy of the capybaras in the wild is eight to ten years. Animals in captivity can live to be more than twelve years old.

Natural enemies

The natural enemies of the capybaras include primarily cats such as the jaguar and the ocelot, as well as the forest dog, but also caimans and anacondas. Young animals sometimes fall prey to birds of prey such as the harpy and the vulture falcon (karakaras).

Capybaras and people

Capybara in the Bolivian pampas


Already the Indians hunted the capybaras, ate their meat, processed their skin and used their incisor teeth for decorative purposes. They have also found their way into the mythology of these peoples. According to the traditional belief of the Yanomamis, there is a doppelganger for every newborn person in the form of a capybara or tapir, who shares their vitality: If the animal is killed, the person in question dies too.

Use and hunting

Capybaras are hunted for their skin and meat. In some regions there are professional hunters, Carpincheros called who hunt for commercial purposes. In many cases, however, the animals are also shot for personal use. Capybara leather is particularly valued in Argentina, it is light brown and covered with lighter little spots. In addition to gloves, belts and leather jackets, they are also used to make saddles and bridles. In southern South America, the oil extracted from subcutaneous fat is considered a medicinal product.

Capybara meat is not eaten everywhere because it is said to have a strong smell and cause skin diseases. It is mainly eaten in Venezuela, where it is dried and cured and preferably eaten on fasting days. The claim, which is widespread in South America, that there is an official church document which classifies the Capybara as "fish" due to its way of life and its thinly hairy skin, is likely to be a legend, especially since similar stories in other regions of the world about other aquatic animals, for example beavers are circulating.

In Argentina and Uruguay, sausages are mainly made from the meat. In the Llanos region in particular, there are already first attempts to breed capybaras on farms for commercial purposes due to this diverse use.

Another reason for hunting is the damage that the animals cause to agriculture. They can cause considerable devastation, especially on plantations, and are considered a plague in some places. They are also persecuted by pasture owners, especially during the dry season, as the capybaras are seen as food competitors of the grazing cattle.

Population development and threat

Many of the habitats suitable for capybaras are found in areas that are intensively used for pasture farming. Since humans provide water sources for grazing animals, minimize the number of predators through hunting and keep grass areas short by cattle, the capybara population has increased in some areas. Counts on large cattle farms in the Llanos region showed a density of 50 to 300 animals per square kilometer.

They have become rare in areas where they are hunted on a commercial scale, such as some regions of Venezuela. In other regions, too, for example in Peru, they have disappeared or their number has fallen drastically. Overall, however, they are common and widespread, so that they are not endangered species.


The Capybara is often considered the only recent member of the giant rodent family (Hydrochoeridae). However, genetic research has shown that the mountain guinea pig is more closely related to the capybara than to the guinea pigs, making them a paraphyletic group. The most recent systematics such as Wilson & Reeder (2005) therefore assign the capybara to the guinea pigs and, together with the mountain guinea pigs, include them in the subfamily of the Hydrochoerinae. Within the rodents they belong to the superfamily of guinea pigs (Cavioidae), to which the Agutis and Acouchis (Dasyproctidae), the Pakas (Cuniculidae) and the Pakarana (Dinomyidae) belong.

Fossil ancestors of the Capybaras have been assigned several genera since the Upper Miocene. The early forms are summarized in the subfamily Cardiatheriinae, which is, however, paraphyletic, since the younger representatives of the group developed from them. The subfamily Protohydrochoerinae with the only genus is from the Pliocene Chapalmatherium (also as Protohydrochoerus) designated. The skulls of these animals were twice as large as those of today's capybaras, and their limbs were significantly longer. The subfamily of the Hydrochoerinae, which also includes the Capybara, has been documented since the Upper Pliocene. All of the giant rodents' fossil finds come from the American continent.

The two subspecies mentioned above, H. h. isthmius and H. h. hydrochaeris, are listed as separate species in some classifications.


In German there are two names for this species, Capybara and Wasserschwein. Since the term water “pig” could lead to the false assumption that the animal is related to the pigs, the neutral “capybara” is preferred today. This is derived from kapi'yva (also kapi'ygua)[1] from the indigenous language Guaraní and translated means “Lord of the grasses” because the animals were among the largest grass-eaters on the continent. It is named differently in Spanish-speaking countries, in Argentina Carpincho, in Venezuela and Colombia Chigüiro, in Ecuador Capihuara and in Peru Ronsoco; in Portuguese-speaking Brazil it is called Capivara. Cabiai is an outdated French name for capybara. In the current German translations of the novel Die mysterious Insel by Jules Verne, this French term is not translated, but retained.

There has long been controversy between the one coined by Brisson in 1762 about the correct scientific generic name Hydrochoerus and that introduced by Brünnich in 1772 Hydrochaeris. Both names are derived from the Greek words hydros (Water and choiros (Pig) off. Brisson's name was rejected for a long time because it did not correspond to the prescribed binomial nomenclature. The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) has the name Hydrochoerus validated due to long use so that Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris represents the correct scientific term.


  • Alvaro Mones, Juhani Ojasti: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris. in: Mammalian species. The American Society of Mammalogists, Washington, D.C. 1986, 264, pp. 1-7. ISSN 0076-3519
  • Ronald M. Nowak: Walker's mammals of the world. 6th edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1999, ISBN 0-8018-5789-9, LCCN 98-23686.
  • D. E. Wilson, D. M. Reeder: Mammal Species of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2005. ISBN 0-8018-8221-4
  1. ^ Antonio Guasch: Diccionario Castellano-Guarani, Ediciones Loyola, Asuncion 1978

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