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 2 feet (60 centimeters) tall at the shoulder and built somewhat like a barrel with legs, 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

Africa has hippos, and the Americas have capybaras! Capys are found east of the Andes on Central and South American riverbanks, beside ponds, and in marshes or wherever standing water is available. Due to its dry skin, a capy requires a swimming hole as part of its lifestyle to stay healthy.

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.

Seventy-five percent of a capybara’s diet is only three to six plant species.
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.
Fossils of the extinct Pinckney’s capybara have been found in San Diego County’s Oceanside.
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. They are trained to walk onto a scale for their monthly weight checks, to come into their bedroom area when called, to go into crates, and to sit still for a quick physical evaluation. All this is accomplished with the aid of a powerful motivator—the food treat! Our largest female, Rose, enjoys belly rubs, foot massages, and scratches on a daily basis. You can often spot keepers hand-feeding our capybara group in the morning, as many of them like to lie at their feet. With all this special attention, no wonder we have had 13 babies born since the exhibit opened in 2009!

Stop by Elephant Odyssey to see these large and unusual rodents. You may see them swimming in their pool, lounging in the sun, or eating their snacks. But no matter what they’re doing, the water pigs will surely astound you.

The capybara is not currently classified as an endangered species, although it is threatened by deforestation, habitat destruction, and illegal poaching. It was in trouble not too long ago, though, due to hunting. Local people have used this animal as a food source for centuries and have 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.