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Issue: 70 Section: Baby Animals Geography: Latin America

July 25, 2010


Because a serious world needs serious cuteness

A baby capybara wants in on the photo. CC

Found in rivers, swamps, ponds and other freshwater bodies throughout South America, the capybara grazes on grasses and aquatic plants. This sheep-sized rodent—it is the largest of the rodents—is most comfortable in the water, and can stay submerged for up to five minutes.

Reminiscent of an aquatic hippo-guinea pig, the capybara can reach up to four feet in length. Few reach that size, however, as they are preyed on from the sky by harpy eagles, from the water by caimans and from the land by jaguars, pumas, ocelots and anacondas. Capybaras have adapted to these threats by breeding rapidly, swimming swiftly with their webbed feet, sleeping for short periods during the day and grazing at night. The capybara can sleep underwater, keeping only its nostrils above the surface.

Its name derives from a name meaning "master of the grasses" in the Indigenous Guarani language, and its Greek name, Hydrochaeris, means "water hog." The furry, water-dwelling beaver-pig is also hunted for its hide, which has the characteristic of stretching in one direction, and its meat. At one point the Catholic Church classified the sleek aquatic herbivore as a fish, making it an appropriate food while observing Lent. According to legend, 16th-century missionaries hinted that their converts (in modern-day Venezuela) would starve if they were not able to dine on the meat of the hardy rodent.

Capybaras are highly social, living in groups of ten or more which feature a dominant male. They communicate with a combination of purring, clicks, whistles and grunts. The gregarious web-footed grass-munchers also communicate by scent; the dominant male is identifiable by a prominent scent gland on his nose, which he uses to wipe pheromones on grasses to mark his group's territory. Young capybaras will form their own group within a group, and nurse from any of the group's females.

A capybara named Boris became a local legend in Scotland last January after he escaped from a zoo. Locals reported sightings of an animal the size of a sheep with the head of a bear, until word spread about an escaped capybara. He "led the life of Riley for months," reported the Ayrshire Post, until cold autumn weather forced Boris to seek food and warmth in the local residents' gardens and porches. He was finally captured whilst "warming his backside" at a dryer vent inside a garage, according to retired businessman David Hammond. Hammond quickly closed the garage door, and Boris was returned the zoo.


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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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