What In The World Is A Capybara? | Science | Smithsonian
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What In The World Is A Capybara?

And why is one running loose in California?

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A wild capybara by a lake in Brazil (courtesy of flickr user otherthings)

Did you hear that there’s a capybara on the loose in Los Angeles California? It’s been roaming the Paso Robles wastewater treatment plant since at least last month, possibly for years. And it’s likely to stay there–game wardens won’t do anything as long as the animal appears healthy and isn’t harming anyone or anything (though if someone decides a capybara would make a good hunting trophy, they’ll change that policy and capture the animal for its own protection).

But what is a capybara anyway?

The capybara is the world’s largest rodent and can grow four or more feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds. It’s a native of South America and though there may be a small population in Florida (established after a few animals escaped from a research facility), the Los Angeles California rodent is likely just a lonely animal who has managed to survive after escaping (or being released by) its owner. “Somebody probably brought it in as a pet, and they either got away or people couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan told the Los Angeles Times.

Capybaras like to hang out in semi-aquatic environments, among the dense vegetation near lakes and swamps and marshes. (Maybe a wastewater treatment plant feels like home.) They’re herbivores that feast on grasses and aquatic plants. They hide from predators by diving beneath the water’s surface, where they can stay for up to five minutes.

Solitary living is not the norm for the capybara. In the wild, they gather in groups of 10 to 20 (and up to 100 during the dry season) headed by a dominant male. They’re a social bunch that likes to chatter; when they feel threatened, capybaras bark like a dog.

Some people in South America eat capybaras (they’re numerous enough that they’re not threatened by hunting). It’s said that the meat tastes like pork.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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