Central and South America


Swampy, grassy regions bordering rivers, ponds, streams, and lakes

A rodent of unusual size

Is it a beaver without a tail? A hairy pig without a snout? No, it’s a capybara, the largest rodent in the world! Standing about two feet tall and built somewhat like a barrel with legs, the capybara is found on Central and South American riverbanks, beside ponds, and in marshes or wherever standing water is available. Africa has hippos and the Americas have capybaras!

The capy has long, light brown, shaggy hair, a face that looks like a beaver’s, no tail, and slightly webbed feet. Originally thought to be a pig of some sort, we now know that the capybara is a rodent, closely related to cavies and guinea pigs.

Water pig

The capybara’s scientific name, Hydrochoerus, means water hog, and the capy is always found near water, typically in groups of 10 to 30 animals. Water is a source of life for the capybara, as the animal eats water plants and grasses and uses the water itself to escape from danger. In fact, a capybara can stay underwater for up to five minutes at a time to hide from predators. It uses those webbed feet (four toes on each front foot and three on each back one) to swim as well as walk.

The capybara has something in common with the hippo: its eyes, ears, and nostrils are all found near the top of the animal’s head. A capy can lift just those parts out of the water to learn everything it needs to know about its surroundings, while the rest of its body remains hidden underwater.

Capybaras also wallow in shallow water and mud to keep cool during a hot day before wandering out in the evening to graze. They tend to eat around dawn and dusk, but if capybaras feel threatened, they wait until the safe cover of night to eat.

The word capybara means “master of the grass."
Some extinct cousins of the capybara were twice as long and probably weighed eight times as much as their modern-day relatives.
Capybaras are so trainable that in Surinam a blind man once used a capybara as a guide animal.
In 1995, paleontologists from the San Diego Natural History Museum found the fossilized remains of part of a capybara skull in Oceanside, California, during construction excavations for a new shopping center.
In the 16th century, the Catholic Church classified the capybara, which can swim, as a fish so that the meat could be eaten on Fridays and during Lent.
Capybaras are farmed for their meat and for their hide, which is used to make leather.

The San Diego Zoo has a group of capybaras that can be seen in the Elephant Odyssey habitat.

The capybara is not currently classified as an endangered species. It was in trouble not too long ago, though, due to hunting. Local people have used these animals as a food source for centuries and have even been seen wearing capybara teeth as ornaments. Now, capybaras are being farmed for their meat as part of a mammal management plan in Venezuela and Colombia. This helps to protect the capybaras left in the wild and their wild habitat, which, in turn, helps all of the plants and animals that call that habitat home.

You can help us bring other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.