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Capybara

Scientific name: Hydrochaeris hydrochaerisCapybara

Country: Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, French Guyana, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay.

Continent: South America

Diet: Grasses - graminivore

Food & feeding: Herbivore. The Zoo diet includes hay, vegetables and pellets.

Habitats: Tropical grassland, freshwater

Conservation status: Not Threatened

Relatives: Mouse, giant jumping rat

Description: The world's largest rodent (related to rats and mice). They weigh in at around 55 kg. The capybara's stocky body has a length of about a metre and a height at the shoulder around 60 cm. It ranges in colour from brown to reddish and has tough skin, which is sometimes used to make high quality leather. The eyes and ears are high on the head so they can easily be kept above water when swimming.

Lifestyle: The capybara is semi-aquatic, living in grassy wetland areas or close to rivers. It carries out most of its activities on land, using water as a refuge where is swims and dives with ease. There are simple webs between the toes that help when swimming. They can hold their breath under water for only a few minutes, but can hide in water when necessary for much longer, with only their noses sticking out of the water. The hottest hours of the day are spent in the water and grazing is done in the mornings, evenings and at night.

Family & friends: The family group is typically controlled by a dominant male and made up of the females, younger males and young. There is a strict pecking-order within the group. Group sizes can vary according to the season, but ranges from 10-100 individuals, with 20 being the most usual. During the dry season when there is less open water, larger groups can form as they congregate around the remaining water.

Keeping in touch: Capybaras communicate using barks, whistles, clicks, squeals and grunts. Scent is also an important part of their lives. The dominant male in a group has a large shiny gland on the bridge of his nose that is used for smearing a scent onto grasses in his territory.

Growing up: Mating takes place often in the water and after a period of 130 days, a litter of two to eight babies are born. The newborns can follow their mother around and eat plants almost immediately after being born, although they still drink milk and are not weaned until about 16 weeks. Other females in the group also assist in their care during the early stages. The average adult lives for less than four years in the wild, as they are a favourite food of anacondas, jaguar, puma, ocelot, eagle and caiman. In captivity, they can live for 12 years.

The name capybara means 'master of the grasses' in the language of the Guarani Indians. Grasses are indeed the favourite food of this giant rodent. Like other rodents, the front teeth grow continuously to make up for the wear and tear of eating grasses.

Conservation news: They are hunted for their meat and skins, and killed by humans when grazing is seen as competition for livestock. In some areas they are farmed, which ensures the protection of the wetlands that they like to live in and all of the other creatures that live there too. Overall, their population seems to be stable. Their survival in the wild is assisted by the ability to breed rapidly.