The rodent that other creatures use as a chair
It’s an animal to which many other creatures (and not just its predators) are attracted. Whether it’s in the water, or out of it eating grass—or even just lazing around—they want to be on its back, at its side, or close by it.
What is it? It’s the world’s biggest rodent, the capybara, which can weigh up to 66 kg (145 pounds).1
Europeans first described it as a water hog—because it swam and looked like a pig—hence the scientific name Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris. The common name capybara derives from ka’apiûara (‘grass eater’) in the once widely spoken South American Tupi language.2
Along with cavies (domesticated varieties of which are more commonly known as guinea pigs), capybaras are classified within the Caviomorpha. This is one of the two subdivisions of the rodent infraorder Hystricognathi, a group with distinctive skull features and which includes porcupines. All caviomorphs live in the New World, the majority in South America.3 Capybaras have large heads, heavy muzzles, short legs, and coarse hair that can be reddish, yellowish or dark brown.1
Capybaras are social animals that control parasites by mutual grooming. They live in groups of a dozen or more, mostly females and young, led by a dominant male3 and like to laze near water in the morning, rest during the hottest part of the day, and graze late in the afternoon and evening.4
Like rabbits and hares, capybaras deliberately eat special fecal pellets, a process called refection, their way of ‘chewing the cud’ to help them digest plant matter.5,6 The contents of these pellets come from their cecum, which in mammals is a pouch-like structure where the small intestine ends and the large one begins. In the capybara, it functions as a large fermentation chamber, which stores and churns the fibrous materials while mixing in bacteria, enzymes, and gases to aid digestion.
But rabbits do not regurgitate and re-chew food as do the ruminants (e.g. cows), whereas capybaras, even though lacking the stomach chamber known as the rumen, sometimes do. Each day, a capybara eats about 3 kg (6.5 pounds) of fresh forage; mainly grasses as well as reeds and water hyacinths, depending on the season. Capybaras also eat various cultivated crops and they particularly like rice and sugar cane.7
Life at the water’s edge
Capybaras are strong swimmers, aided by their partly webbed feet, which are also useful on swampy ground. They live close to water and can stay submerged for up to five minutes.1 When alerted to danger by special alarm barks from other capybaras, they can hastily retreat to the water, exposing just their nostrils and eyes. They also communicate through a variety of other sounds, including growls, whinnies, and whistles.
Capybaras mate in water and usually have a litter of four to five pups annually, each weighing about 1.5 kg (3.3 pounds). These suckle for about 16 weeks and, born with teeth, can eat grass from just a few days old. They normally live for seven to 10 years, though up to 15 in captivity.4
Several species of birds literally flock to their sides … and backs, as do various other creatures. Capybaras have been referred to as ‘nature’s chair’ or a ‘headrest for the rest of nature’.8
When they forage, various birds use them as a perch, walking near their heads to catch prey they disturb (such as insects) and also feeding on the rodent’s ectoparasites such as fleas and lice. Capybaras will even lie down and expose their flanks and underside for birds to ‘clean’. One was seen ‘presenting’ its nostril to a bird so it could remove a tick.9
Why the attraction?
It is not unusual to see feeding associations such as this, which favour both creatures, between birds and mammals.10 But less clear is why so many other creatures are also seen so close to capybaras, both in the wild and in captivity. For example, in shared zoo enclosures, spider monkeys will ride on the back of the rodent, and groom it. These are normally forest-dwellers that don’t live in the same natural habitat as capybaras.11 An internet search will also reveal images of other creatures, such as a cat, a monkey, or a duck similarly riding on a capybara’s back.
Five facts about capybaras
- Dominant males have a large scent gland on top of the snout (known as a morillo) from which they can secrete fluid to mark their territory and signal dominance.
- Juveniles are easy prey for anacondas, caimans and jaguars.
- They can grow up to 120 cm (4 ft) long and measure about 60 cm (2 ft) at the shoulder.
- They are farmed commercially for their meat, and also their skin which makes excellent leather.
- Their teeth continue to grow and change shape as they age (see box ‘Capybara evolution?’).
A reminder of Eden
These associations seem to run counter to the survival-of-the-fittest paradigm that Charles Darwin first proposed and his modern-day devotees mostly champion. By contrast, the Bible speaks of a once-perfect creation spoilt by sin, in which all creatures once naturally co-existed peacefully. Seeing many different types of animals cuddling up to the gentle capybara reminds us that only after sin entered through Adam and Eve has death intruded and predation become prevalent. It brings to mind the picture in Isaiah 11:6–9 of humans and animals once again living in a future harmony:
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”
Beliefs about capybara evolution are generally in line with what could be deduced from the groupings in which they are classified. But little is provided in the way of evidence to support the belief that they descended from quite different types of creature. In line with the general nature of the fossil record, there is no evidence of the major transitions in body form which need to have happened if all creatures share the same common ancestor.
Evolutionists regard capybaras as related to guinea pigs, rock cavies, agoutis, and chinchillas. The idea that these once shared a common ancestor is not unreasonable, and these are all likely to represent the same created kind. After the Flood, the mountainous region where the Ark landed would have provided the geographical isolation for rapid allopatric speciation. That is, most kinds would have rapidly adapted to changing and different environments, from natural selection acting on mostly the genetic variation built in at creation, culling that which was unsuitable for the environment. The isolation would mean that these varieties would not breed with the others, so the distinct varieties and even species would arise. E.g. an information-losing mutation that partly disabled the gene for separating the digits in the feet would result in webbing, and this would be a selective advantage for frequent swimmers.
Fossils show several (and also very large) extinct types of capybara. These may well have also been the same baramin (kind), and so it is not surprising that the number of different ‘labels’ for these has been shrinking as more is known. In one instance, capybara fossils once regarded as seven extinct species within four genera (on the basis of tooth differences, which is the way most mammal ‘evolution’ is supposedly ‘documented’) are now thought to simply be individuals of differing ages within a single fossil species.1
- .Vucetich, M.G., Deschamps, C.M., Olivares, A.I. and Dozo, M.T., Capybaras, size, shape, and time: A model kit, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 50(2): 259–272, 2005.
References and notes
- Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, Capybara biology, eol.org, accessed July 2016. Return to text.
- Capybara. Biology, Use and Conservation of an Exceptional Neotropical Species, Eds: Moreira, J.R., Ferraz, K.M.P.M.B., Herrera, E.A., Macdonald, D.W., Springer-Verlag, New York, 2013. Also Ferreira, A.B. H., Novo Dicionário da Língua Portuguesa, 2nd edn, Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, p. 344, 1986. Return to text.
- Herrera, E.A. et al., Capybara social structure and dispersal patterns: variations on a theme, J. Mammalogy, 2011 | doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1644/09-MAMM-S-420.1. Also McKenna, M. C., and Bell, S.K., Classification of mammals above the species level, Columbia University Press, NY, 1997. See also ref. 2. Return to text.
- Capybara, Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, library.sandiegozoo.org, accessed July 2016. Return to text.
- do Valle Borges, L., and Colares I.G., Feeding habits of capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, Linnaeus 1766), in the Ecological Reserve of Taim (ESEC-Taim)–south of Brazil, Braz. arch. biol. technol. 50(3):409–416, May 2007 | doi:10.1590/S1516-89132007000300007. Return to text.
- See Sarfati, J., Do rabbits chew their cud? The Bible beats the skeptics (again) …, Creation 20(4):56, 1998; creation.com/rabbit. Return to text.
- Felix, G.A. et al., Feeding behavior and crop damage caused by capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) in an agricultural landscape, Braz. J. Biol. 74(4):779–786, November 2014 | doi:10.1590/1519-6984.02113. Return to text.
- Schultz, C., Capybaras are basically nature’s chairs, smithsonianmag.com, accessed July 2016. Return to text.
- Tomazzoni, A. et al., Feeding associations between capybaras Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris (Linnaeus) (Mammalia, Hydrochaeridae) and birds in the Lami Biological Reserve, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, Revista Brasileira de Zoologia 22(3):712–716, September 2005. Return to text.
- Rodrigues, F.H. and Monteiro-Filho, E.L.A., Commensalistic relation between pampas deer, Ozotocerus bezoarticus (Mammalia: Cervidae) and rheas, Rhea americana (Aves: Rheidae), Brenesia 45-46:187–188, 1996. Return to text.
- Parsons, C., Cheeky monkeys hitch a ride on giant rodent, uk.news.yahoo.com, accessed July 2016. Return to text.