Capybara

Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris               Order: Rodentia          Family: Caviidae

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

The native range of H. hydrochaeris occurs to the east of the Canal Zone in Panama, and on the east side of the Andes in South America from Colombia and the Guianas to Uruguay and northeastern Argentina (Mones & Ojasti, 1986). The native range of H. isthmius occurs in eastern Panama, northwestern Colombia, and northwestern Venezuela (Lord, 2009). Both H. hydrochaeris and H. isthmius live in a rainforest environment that contains estuaries, marshes, rivers and/or streams. Their habitat typically experiences approximately 2.3 m (7.5 ft.) of rain annually, with the dry season occurring from May to November tempered by a flood season running from December to April. H. hydrochaeris usually lives in groups averaging ten in number. Individual herds may temporarily create larger aggregations, which may contain up to one hundred individuals. The herd size varies according to the season, with larger groups found during the dry season (Lord, 2009). Likewise, H. isthmius lives in social groups during the dry season; however, H. isthmius lives individually during the rest of the year.

Longevity

 Wild Capybara live an average of 4 years, but can live about 10 years in human care

Ecosystem Role

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information 
    • Include relevant information on breeding, reproduction, growth and development that may require necessary housing modifications.
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  • Temperature, Humidity, Light Cycles

The animals must be protected or provided accommodation from weather, and any adverse conditions. (AZA Accreditation Standard 1.5.7). Animals not normally exposed to cold weather/water temperatures should be provided heated enclosures/pool water. Likewise, protection from excessive cold weather/water temperatures should be provided to those animals normally living in warmer climates/water temperatures.

Capybaras can withstand great temperature extremes and may be kept outdoors in areas with lows of 4 °C (40 °F) as long as a heated shelter with bedding such as straw, hay, or mulch is provided. Capybaras can tolerate temperatures as high as 32–38 °C (90–100 °F) as long as they have access to water and shade. Water can be provided in the form of a pool, mister, or mud wallows. Shade may be provided by trees, shelters, shade cloth, or access to an indoor area. In an effort to mimic the capybara’s natural environment, humidity levels for indoor enclosures should range from 30–70% relative humidity (RH), but capybaras can tolerate lower levels of humidity (15–20% RH) in drier climates without apparent difficulty (Joslin et al., 1998).

AZA institutions with exhibits which rely on climate control must have critical life-support systems for the animal collection and emergency backup systems available. Warning mechanisms and backup systems must be tested periodically (AZA Accreditation Standard 10.2.1).

Indoor enclosures require heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to maintain their climates, and these systems must have a secondary power source in the event of an emergency or a power outage. Secondary power sources include backup generators for the building housing the exhibit, and these systems should be maintained by certified HVAC workers (T. Schoffner, personal communication, 2014).

Light Cycles

  • Careful consideration should be given to the spectral, intensity, and duration of light needs for all animals in the care of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. Typically, capybaras are housed outdoors during at least part of the year, but when housed indoors, capybaras respond well to a 12-hour light and 12-hour dark cycle (Morgan & Tromborg, 2007). Natural fluorescent or incandescent lighting is acceptable to provide the light part of the cycle. When animals are housed indoors, it is recommended that a UV light also be used for a minimum of 7 hours per day as a source of visual stimulation. For purposes of visibility, facilities maintaining capybaras in a nocturnal house may find it useful to incorporate a reverse light cycle, using either red or blue light during the “night” part of the cycle and a bright white light for the “day” part (Morgan & Tromborg, 2007). It has yet to be documented if a variation in the light cycle plays an important role in affecting capybara behavior.

Social Housing/Colony Management

  • Careful consideration should be given to exhibit design so that all areas meet the physical, social, behavioral, and psychological needs of the species. Animals must be well cared for and presented in a manner reflecting modern zoological practices in exhibit design (AZA Accreditation Standard 1.5.1). All animals must be housed in enclosures that meet their physical and psychological needs, as well as their social needs. (AZA Accreditation Standard 1.5.2, 1.5.2.1, 1.5.2.2).
  • Social needs: Capybaras are social animals that should be kept in groups ranging from neonate to geriatric individuals (Moreira et al., 2013). In smaller social groups, large age gaps require more monitoring, as some older animals can be intolerant of younger individuals. In nature, social groups contain more females than males, because when males reach sexual maturity the dominant males expel them from the group. Males should not be housed together, especially if females are nearby, as this will increase the probability of fighting. Introductions should be carried out very carefully, as bonded adults may attack or kill strange adults (see Chapter 5.3 for more on introductions).
  • Enclosures for isolated/separated individuals require standards similar to those for primary enclosures because individuals may become easily stressed if housed in small areas. Use caution when deciding to separate an individual, as it is very difficult to reintroduce capybaras. Separated individuals may be housed outdoors providing there is adequate shelter from extreme weather. It is not necessary to separate parturient females; provide them instead with sufficient space within the enclosure, such as access to a secluded area away from other animals, in order to protect infants from other members of the group during birthing (Alvarez & Kravetz, 2006).

Group Structure and Size

·         Careful consideration should be given to ensure the social group size and structure meet the social, physical, and psychological well-being of the animals and facilitate species-appropriate behaviors.

  • Typical capybara herds are composed of one dominant male (subordinate males are peripheral members of the herd), several adult females, and their young. A herd’s social order is normally very stable and the dominant position rarely changes. As a result, unfamiliar individuals are often attacked. The ideal social structure, in terms of age and sex, would result from developing a herd with a founder male and one or more females of approximately the same age. These individuals would then naturally reproduce to reach a herd size appropriate for the exhibit space (Herrera & McDonald, 1987). As such, the ideal number of capybaras at an institution will vary by exhibit size and institutional capabilities.
  • To prevent inbreeding and aggression, subordinate males and young females should be placed at another facility or in a separate exhibit once they reach sexual maturity, although contraceptive measures, such as castration and/or melengestrol acetate (MGA) administration, can be taken in an effort to continue to house the group together. Bachelor groups of capybaras are not advised, as males become aggressive towards one another once they reach sexual maturity (Moreira et al., 2013). Capybaras, both males and females, reach sexual maturity at approximately 15 months of age in managed care facilities (Moreira et al., 2013).
  • Exhibit space: Exhibit size varies based on the size of the herd and other species housed in the enclosure. The minimum exhibit space recorded in an unpublished 2014 survey of AZA-accredited institutions that house capybaras was 95 m2 (312 ft2) which held one nonbreeding pair of capybaras, while the maximum was 15,933 m2 (52,272 ft2) for a mixed species exhibit. The median exhibit size was 523 m2 (1775 ft2).
  • Based on the 2014 survey, capybaras are able to stay on exhibit 24 hours a day as they are not considered dangerous animals. Facilities that are located in areas with extreme temperature changes by season may choose to seasonally leave their capybaras on exhibit or bring them into a holding space overnight. Additionally, because capybaras are not capable of climbing, exhibits do not need to be fully enclosed. When capybaras are housed in fully enclosed exhibits, these exhibits usually have a mixed species composition with fully flighted birds or species that have the ability to climb.
  • Exhibit substrate: Enclosures should contain natural substrates including mulch, sod, hay, leaf litter, river rock, straw, gravel, sand, and flagstone. Substrates and nesting/bedding material such as hay, pine straw, soil, grass, or other materials that can be easily removed and replaced but not ingested are appropriate and should be provided daily. The entire exhibit does not need to have thick substrate, just localized spots. The spots are important for joint health and footpad quality, especially if there are geriatric animals within the enclosure (Morgan & Tromborg, 2007).
  • Exhibit cleaning: Capybaras normally scent mark on trees and rocks around their living spaces, and these may need periodic cleaning or replacement. It is typically more efficient to replace logs and plants than to clean them. Enclosures should be cleaned, with wet or soiled bedding replaced, on a daily basis. Capybaras defecate in water, so artificial pools without recirculating, filtered water should be cleaned and disinfected at least once a week. Natural pools need to have filtration for the solid waste, especially if the water source is shared with other habitats.
  • Enclosure complexity: Capybaras do not typically show signs of stress due to the presence of visitors; therefore, it is not necessary to house capybaras behind glass or a great distance away from visitors. However, capybaras are flight animals and should be provided with a hide for cover; this may necessitate that more than one area is available within the enclosure. Examples of hides include, but are not limited to, wooden shelters, caves, access to a holding facility, vegetation, rocks, logs, bamboo, and waterfalls. The addition of rocks, fallen logs, trees, bushes, and leaves within the exhibit encourages increased activity levels for all group members. Exhibits should be well planted to give individuals visual barriers from each other.
  • Capybaras rest through the hot portion of the day and nap on and off throughout the night. Rest areas should be sheltered and well bedded. Plants commonly used include palms, tall grasses, and trees and shrubs native to the area. If artificial vining is necessary, capybaras should be monitored for ingestion.
  • Injuries caused by enclosure materials are rare, but superficial wounds and teeth damage may be associated with chain link fences.
  • Water sources: Capybaras should have frequent access to bodies of water since a significant amount of their behavior, including feeding, mating, escape, and hiding revolves around water. Pools should be provided in both indoor and outdoor enclosures. The median pool size in AZA capybara exhibits is 289.6 m2 (950 ft2), with a minimum size of 46 m2 (150 ft2) and a maximum size of 3,983 m2 (13,068 ft2). The water in the exhibits can be provided as a pool, a pond, a river, or a lagoon. Pools may be as shallow as 1.1 m (3.5 ft.), however, the norm is at least 1.8 m (6 ft.), including a gradual incline. The AZA Rodent, Insectivore and Lagomorph TAG has not set minimum guidelines for space—these dimensions were provided from the results of an unpublished 2014 AZA survey.
  • The same careful consideration regarding exhibit size and complexity and its relationship to the capybaras’ overall well-being must be given to the design and size of all enclosures, including those used in exhibits, holding areas, hospital, and quarantine/isolation (AZA Accreditation Standard 10.3.3). Sufficient shade must be provided by natural or artificial means when sunlight is likely to cause overheating or discomfort to the animals (AZA Accreditation Standard 10.3.4).
  • Ambassador capybaras require access to water in their enclosures for drinking and encouraging other natural behaviors, such as wallowing and defecation. Pools can vary in size and style, ranging from 88.9 cm (35 in.) x 88.9 cm (35 in.) x 15.24 cm (6 in.) to 214.48 cm (84 in.) at the two facilities with ambassador capybaras, and should be large enough to allow the animal to comfortably roll around and lie down. Water should be accessible year-round, particularly as a cooling option seasonally on warmer days; both facilities had pools outdoors for use in hot weather.
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Diet Requirements

Diet in the Wild

  • The capybara is an herbivorous species indigenous to South America (Baldizán, Dixon, & Parra, 1983).
  • The wild diet of a capybara varies from the dry season (where food availability and quality are reduced) to the wet season (where there are abundant resources) and can include herbaceous plants, leaves, aquatic plants (reeds, water hyacinths), grasses, and crops (fruits, grains, seeds, vegetables). Although capybaras are classified as grazers, they selectively eat vegetation high in protein and energy whereas most grazers typically ingest diets low in protein and energy (Barreto & Herrera, 1998). Therefore, despite their grazer classification, capybaras’ wild feeding ecology dictates that they should be fed as a browsing species in managed care.
  • During the rainy season when forage is abundant, capybaras selectively consume a large variety of plants (89 species) but 94% of the plants belong to Poaceae and Pontederiaceae (flowering plants), Cyperaceae (sedges), and Leguminosae (legumes) (Forero-Montaña, Bentancur, & Cavelier, 2003). Capybaras most often consume grasses and 60% of the grasses consist of Dahl grass (Hymenachne amplexicauli), crabgrass (Digitaria bicornis), and guinea grass (Panicum maximum) (Forero-Montaña, Bentancur, & Cavelier, 2003).

Diet under human care

  • Nogueira-Filhoet al. (2013) have made some relevant recommendations for the nutritional maintenance of capybaras:

Energy requirement: 65.5 Kcal/kg LW0.75 (Ojasti, 1991) 

Protein requirement: 1.56 g of digestible protein/kg LW0.75.

Calcium requirement: 0.30 g Ca/kg LW0.75 

Phosphorus requirement: 0.15 g P/kg LW0.75 

  • Supplementation with vitamin C: Capybaras need a dietary source of vitamin C and should receive 1 gram of ascorbic acid per day (Cueto, Allekotte, & Kravetz, 2000). Fruits are a typical ingredient in most capybara diets as fruits are high in vitamin C. However, fruit—especially our cultivated fruits—are high in sugars that will disrupt the gut microbial population. Therefore, fruit should not be used as the sole means of providing vitamin C to managed capybaras; vitamin C may be added to the diet in powder form as a supplement.
  • Diets high in fiber: The capybara GIT requires a diet high in fiber to support fermentation and a healthy microbial population. Considering that an adult capybara should consume approximately 2,500 kilocalories (kcal) daily, and these kilocalories should come from foods that are high fiber but are relatively low in kilocalories, the capybara should occupy much of its day eating and chewing.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables should comprise less than 5% of the capybara diet. The fruit and vegetable varieties used should be low in sugars and vegetables should be emphasized over fruit. In other words, small amounts of such foods can be used for environmental enrichment and/or training purposes but should not be relied upon to comprise the bulk of the diet. Limiting fruits and vegetables will also encourage ingestion of appropriate foods such as pellets and forage (branches, hay) and will decrease dietary starch and sugars that can cause GIT inflammation, extreme fluctuations of GIT pH, and Type II diabetes. Fruits that have been fed to capybaras by AZA institutions include orange, pear, grape, apple, banana, melon, mango, peach, plum, kiwi, and cantaloupe. Vegetables include kale, mustard, turnip, dandelion, spinach, romaine, carrot, yam, bell pepper, squash, green beans, broccoli, sweet potato, corn, cucumber, lettuce, cabbage, endive, zucchini, pumpkin, onion, green pepper, cauliflower, collared greens, squash, celery, and tomato.
  • Pelleted feed: Pelleted feed should be based on alfalfa hay and should be low in sugar (less than 5%) and starches (less than 5%). The pelleted feed should not contain grains because of the high amounts of sugar and starch in grains. The feed pellets should not comprise more than 50% of the diet by weight as fed. Feeds that AZA institutions have used for their capybaras include: rodent chow, primate biscuits, rabbit chow, capybara pellets, Mazuri® ADF 25, Mazuri® ADF 16, Mazuri® Guinea Pig Pellets, Mazuri® Wild Herbivore, Mazuri® Browse Biscuits, Mazuri® Rodent Breeder, Mazuri® Primate Browse Biscuits, Mazuri® New World Primate Biscuits, and Mazuri® Omnivore A.
  • Forage: At least 50% of the diet by weight as fed should be supplied by forage in the form of fresh browse (leaves, flowers, etc.) or alfalfa hay. Although capybaras are classed as grazers, they selectively ingest forage high in protein and energy. Alfalfa hay is closest to the nutritional analysis of the plants ingested in the wild (see Table 5 below). Grass hay is too low in protein and energy for capybaras. Mixed hay with at least 50% alfalfa hay content or higher can be considered. Some institutions have had great success with fresh, bagged hay products such as Chaffhaye (http://chaffhaye.com/). Other institutions have used the following plants as browse: canna, bamboo, mulberry, maple, dogwood, sassafras, and timothy hay.
  • Table 5. Comparison of composition of some wild foods eaten by capybaras to alfalfa and timothy hay (dry matter (DM) basis)
  • Enrichment food options: Food items may also be used as sources of enrichment. Examples of suitable edible enrichment include peanuts, peanut butter, nuts, popcorn, Cheerios®, instant oatmeal, sunflower seeds, honey, bread, and dried pastas.
  • Feeding browse and forage to managed capybaras: All browse plants used within the animal’s diet or for enrichment must be identified and assessed for safety. The responsibility for approval of plants and oversight of the program must be assigned to at least one qualified individual (AZA Accreditation Standard 2.6.3).
  • Any browse or forage fed to capybaras should be clean and free of contaminants (dust, stones, plant detritus, animal matter, fecal matter, etc.) and pesticides. Avoid using plants grown along roads and highways because the plants can contain petroleum residues and chemicals used for road maintenance. Commercial suppliers should be asked about pesticide use for their products and/or edible plant materials should be purchased from organic producers. When possible, plants and produce should be washed before feeding them out.
  • There is a lack of research on the safety and suitability of browse and forage species for capybara. Therefore, we have to rely on historical safe use of plants. A comprehensive listing of browse species used in zoos across the United States and Canada by region can be found in Appendix H. Some of the plants listed may not be acceptable for capybaras.
  • Appendix H is a comprehensive guide for selecting quality alfalfa hay. Hay producers typically provide a detailed analysis of their alfalfa on a crop-by-crop basis.

Example Diet

Food Item Group Measure (1.1)
Guinea Pig Diet (Mazuri®) 600 grams
Apple 400 grams (XL chunks)
Sweet Potato 500 grams (XL chunks)
Carrot 450 grams
Fruit (pear or melon) 100 grams (XL chunks)
Corn w/ husk 1 ear, halved
Greens – choose any two 1100 grams
Alfalfa Hay Handful in PM

Veterinary Concerns

  • Kimberly Cook is the AZA SSP/TAG veterinary advisor for capybaras (k.cook@akronzoo.org). Protocols for health inspections vary by institution. Most operate on an as-needed basis based on keeper observation. Weights are typically monitored monthly, and fecals collected every 6 months. Those AZA-accredited facilities following a schedule for health inspections typically examine individuals once or twice a year. Comprehensive health exams necessitate that animals are restrained. Methods of restraint vary based on the exam but include crating, darting, netting, manually restraining, squeeze holding, and using baffle boards to administer injections. Chemical restraint of capybaras can be accomplished by the use of ketamine (3–4 mg/kg), medetomidine (0.03–0.04 mg/kg), and butorphanol (0.2–0.5 mg/kg) with isoflurane maintenance. Additional options include dexmedetomidine with ketamine.
  • Capybaras occasionally need medication for preventative measures or treatment. Medications that work to deworm them include ivermectin (0.2 mg/kg) and metronidazole (25 mg/kg). Biosponges can be used to treat diarrhea. Aggression can be treated using diazepam (10–15 mg depending on aggression level). For joint issues, rimadyl (4–5 mg/kg) can be used. These medications should be kept in the clinic at room temperature.
  • Currently there are no mandatory regulations for capybara health exams, and depending on the disease history of the animals, testing protocols may vary from an initial quarantine test to yearly repetitions of diagnostic tests as determined by the veterinarian. However, most managed care facilities choose to conduct full health exams on their capybaras at regular intervals ranging from once every six months to once a year. In order to conduct a full health exam, the veterinarian should have access to one to two microscopes, to be used for immediate examination of fecal samples, bodily fluids, and blood and tissue analysis. The veterinarian should also be able to perform emergency tests to determine packed cell volume and total protein, run tests for blood urea nitrogen, serum glucose, urinalysis, and urine specific gravity. If surgery becomes necessary, the veterinary hospital should be a clean space with gas anesthesia onsite, including a gas scavenging system and oxygen. Surgical packs should be available as well as surgical prep solution, IV fluids, fluid administration equipment, pulse oximetry, heart monitors, emergency drugs, heat lamps, and incubators. Additionally, an onsite pharmacy should be housed within the veterinary hospital (Joslin et al., 1998).
  • There are no specific veterinary standards for capybaras. Pregnant capybaras typically do not require any keeper intervention, although some facilities choose to remove pregnant females as they get close to parturition. Capybaras are born precocial, and care for neonates typically does not differ from the care of other animals in the social group. Occasionally, geriatric animals may require veterinary intervention for issues related to arthritis (Bernal et al., 2011).

Enrichment & Training

Enrichment

Text Box: AZA Accreditation Standard

(1.6.2) The institution must have a specific staff member(s) or committee assigned for enrichment program oversight, implementation, assessment, and interdepartmental coordination of enrichment efforts.
  • Examples of potential capybara enrichment include: olfactory items (perfumes, lotions, spices, scents from other animals), novel foods (see feeding section), puzzle feeders, tree stumps, browse, ice blocks, logs, boxes, various feeders, wood, tubes, phone books, laser pointers, mirrors, radios, paints, and mud wallows. There are no enrichment recordkeeping methods specific to capybaras; however, records of enrichment should be kept.
  • The range of species-appropriate behaviors for capybaras is not overly large and includes sleeping, eating, foraging, walking, swimming, chewing, and aggressive and non-aggressive behaviors (courting behaviors, dominance-determining behaviors). Animals typically respond to these behaviors socially using bark and click calls (two of several variations of vocalizations performed by capybaras).
  • Husbandry training provides an opportunity for enrichment for capybaras. Human interaction gives animals the opportunity to interact with their primary keepers (building relationships with their keepers), novel keepers, and even the public (donor feeds). Operant conditioning training engages animals cognitively, requires the animal to think about what the trainer is asking, and allows them to work for rewards; both the cognitive stimulation and rewards can result in an enriching experience.
  • Behavioral Relevant Information
    • Include relevant natural behavior information which will help encourage species appropriate behavioral enrichment. 
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  • Environmental Enrichment 
    • Describe environmental/habitat changes made for this species to enrich its home 
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  • Behavioral Enrichment 
    • List devices or techniques that are “popular” or favorites of this species at your facility
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  • Schedule 
    • Note frequency/enrichment schedule for this species at your institution
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  • Other Enrichment Resources 
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Training

  • Capybaras are able to be trained, and behaviors that have been successfully trained include: crate training, scale training, target training, tactile, halter, hand feeding, belly rubs, shifting, station training, standing for microchip reading, standing on hind legs, voluntary injections, following, and opening their mouth. Although not all facilities engage in a training program, training is recommended to help with necessary procedures. Capybaras are not typically used as ambassador animals, but they may be used for guest feedings and donor experiences. Training sessions may also be done for guests at the capybara exhibit.
  • Capybaras are not classified as dangerous animals, and as such, most facilities allow free contact. Additionally, keepers (and even guests and donors) may hand-feed capybaras. Most facilities that do not engage in a training program reported that their capybaras tend to stay away from keepers and never approach. To work with capybaras, most facilities simply require new keeper training, usually performed by current keeper staff. Common institutional rules for working with capybaras include moving slowly, refraining from sudden movements, taking care not to be surrounded, and carrying barriers with you.
  • Behaviors Trained
    • Note any behaviors this species is trained for, both for husbandry, crating/transport, or for programming. 
    • Can the public participate in any trained behaviors?
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  • Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement 
    • Are reinforcers used only while shaping the behavior? Are they used/delivered during programming?
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Other

Colony or Breeding Management

  • It is extremely important to understand the physiological and behavioral changes that occur throughout an animal’s pregnancy. Capybaras have the longest gestation of all rodents. Gestation length ranges from 147–156 days, and capybaras can produce litters of 4–8 young, with older females generally producing larger litters. Capybaras are born precocial, which is unusual for rodents.
  • Most facilities that have had success with a breeding program have not noticed any behavioral, psychological, or physical issues during mating. In fact, most facilities surveyed indicated that their capybaras often bred in view of all. In one accredited facility, breeding was observed in a recently introduced (within 6 months) capybara pair. There appears to be no separation necessary to facilitate mating and conception, as this typically occurs naturally with no interference from staff. However, during breeding behaviors, some superficial or minor bite wounds have occurred. Breeding in managed care facilities to this point has always been achieved by natural insemination as capybaras breed with little to no problems. No research has been completed on the use or merits of artificial insemination in capybaras. Institutions participating in the AZA Capybara Species Survival Plan® (SSP) have reported that there have been no special husbandry requirements or limitations.
  • Most facilities do not provide materials strictly for nesting. Capybaras are usually provided with hay, straw, or mulch on exhibit, and are simply provided with an increased amount of materials as parturition nears. Signs of parturition can be physical or behavioral, and facilities that have had success in breeding capybaras record that as parturition neared the female separated herself from the rest of the herd. Females nearing parturition may also start to vocalize more. Pregnant females should not be completely isolated from the herd. The den or sheltered area should have a section that is heavily bedded with hay or straw for her comfort.
  • Potential problems that can arise during parturition include stillborns, infanticide, and dystocia. In several instances in managed care facilities, conception was achieved inadvertently while the female was being given MGA for contraception. In these instances, the females did not carry the pregnancy to term due to either natural miscarriage or veterinary intervention. In the event of complications during parturition, cesarean sections can be used to birth the pups.
  • Lactation in capybaras lasts for approximately 10 weeks. In the wild, capybaras have been observed utilizing nursery groups; at times one female has been seen with up to 10 pups of different ages and sizes (Grzimek et al., 2004). It is believed that the lactating females in the group take turns caring for all the young in the group. At least one of the surveyed institutions reported seeing females sharing pup-rearing duties on exhibit. Due to this natural behavior, females should not be separated from the herd during this time, however if it becomes necessary, then the female in question should remain within smelling distance of the herd to prevent any reintroduction issues.

Birthing Facilities

  • As parturition approaches, animal care staff should ensure that the mother is comfortable in the area where the birth will take place, and that this area is “baby-proofed.”
  • The capybara is a precocial species. As such, few changes need to be made to prepare an exhibit for young. Facilities may decide to lower the level of their pools; however, capybaras are known to swim as early as the day they are born. Based on the design of the capybara exhibit, adjustments may need to be made so neonates can access (or be prevented from accessing) different areas of the exhibit. Culverts that are associated with ponds or pools need to be grated to prevent neonates from swimming through them. Exhibits that contain mixed species may require additional monitoring for negative interactions between species, and it may be decided to separate species for a short period. Facilities may also choose to offer a smaller pelleted food for neonates.
  • When nearing parturition, females generally prefer to be alone, returning to the herd shortly after parturition. Physical separation by keepers is unnecessary as long as access to a holding area is provided, allowing females some privacy. Keepers should use caution when working around newborns since the mothers and other females in the herd become very protective of their young. Once a female has given birth, usually in the early morning hours, the area should be kept quiet with as little activity as possible. Because the young are precocial, this does not have to last longer than a day or two.
  • Most facilities only perform one introduction of animals, the initial introduction. As births typically occur in the exhibit or holding areas, re-introductions are not usually required. Typically, no special procedures are associated with re-introduction.

Assisted Rearing

  • Although mothers may successfully give birth, there are times when they are not able to properly care for their offspring, both in the wild and in ex situ populations. Fortunately, animal care staff in AZA-accredited institutions are able to assist with the rearing of these offspring when deemed necessary. A mother may not be able to care adequately for her offspring due to maternal aggression, refusal to nurse, poor lactation, or the health of the offspring. Neonates that are obviously injured or too weak to survive on their own should be removed from the herd for hand-rearing. The hand-rearing techniques for capybaras mentioned in this section were developed by Kimberly Cook, DVM.
  • A syringe or baby bottle can be used for feeding milk. Puppy milk replacer Esbilac® can be used for formula. If diarrhea develops, the formula may need to be cut with ~25% water. Check the nipple hole of the bottle to prevent a fast flow of formula into the neonate’s mouth, which could cause aspiration in the lungs and result in pneumonia. Any formula that is open to the air should be used within 24 hours. Bottles should be washed with warm water and scrubbed with a brush to remove milk residue from the bottle, followed by a disinfectant bath to soak the bottle and nipple. A solution of 28 g (1 oz.) Nolvalsan® or bleach to 1 gallon of warm water is adequate. Before filling the bottle with fresh formula, rinse the bottle and nipple well to remove residue from disinfectants.
  • Of the AZA-accredited facilities surveyed in 2014, only one facility has had cause to hand-rear a capybara offspring. In that circumstance, the pup was kept at 24 °C (75.2 °F), weighed every day at the first feeding, and detailed records were kept of its progress. The pup was feed Esbilac®, and feeding occurred every 3 hours day and night for the first 3 weeks. During weeks four and five, the volume per feeding was increased while the number of feedings was decreased, until night feedings were eventually discontinued. From 3 days of age onward, the pup was offered solid food (grasses, fruits, grains, and romaine lettuce) in addition to the Esbilac®. The pup was weaned at 16 weeks. In addition to feedings, staff also oversaw visits with the pup’s mother and siblings in an effort to get the mother to nurse. The visits were tailored to the level of interest the animals displayed in each other with the end goal of placing the pup back into her mother’s care.

Individual Identification

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

 Capybara presented in an educational setting provide an opportunity to achieve these outcomes in a number of specific ways. Recommendations for messaging with capybara are listed below.

Outcome 1: Species information

  • Capybara are the world’s largest rodents. Native to South America, they are social animals that live in family groups of a mated pair and their offspring. Pups are precocial and are eating solid food within weeks of birth. During the dry season, when food is more scarce, they can be found in larger groups.
  • Capybara are semi-aquatic and spend a lot of time in the water. They eat grasses and reeds along waterways and have several adaptations for this lifestyle including webbed feet and the ability to hold their breath for up to five minutes. Their eyes, ears, and nose are all located near the top of their head, giving them the ability to stay nearly submerged and avoid predators, which include jaguar, anaconda, and caiman.
  • Capybara are currently listed by IUCN as Least Concern. There are areas of their range where populations have dwindled such as Ecuador. Overall, however, they are well represented.

Outcome 2: Animals in human care

  • Capybara do not make good pets. They require a large source of clean water, fresh produce, space, and they can get aggressive. As they are rodents, their incisors are large and can cause damage when they bite. They are also social animals and humans are not the same as conspecifics.
  • In contact and behind-the-scenes programs, there is an opportunity to explain more thoroughly the relationship that trainers have with the capybaras. The trainer should discuss the benefits of training, positive reinforcement training, and the time spent developing the animal/human relationship, in order to ensure the capybara is comfortable in its program role.

Outcome 3: Empathy development

  • Every presentation should begin by setting expectations, explaining rules and sharing what to expect. Empathy development can be encouraged by presenting the capybara in a way that helps the audience connect on an individual level. Some suggestions include: Sharing information about the individual animal, such as name, age, weight, preferences, and temperament, and discussion of how the capybara is like us.
  • A presentation of any capybara, regardless of temperament, is an opportunity to explain that prey animals are very alert to signs of danger. Loud noises or sudden movements, for example, could startle or scare them, they same way they might scare one of us, especially if we are on the lookout for danger.
  • Allowing the capybara to display natural behaviors, such as swimming, and positive interactions with the presenter is also an opportunity to foster empathy.

Outcome 4: Conservation action

  • Capybara are semi-aquatic and are dependent on healthy aquatic ecosystems to survive. Encouraging visitors to conserve water and protect aquatic habitats can help to protect capybara and many other species.
  • Programs such as “Cans for Corridors” can directly help capybaras and other species in the ecosystem such as tamarins and jaguars by helping to reconnect fragmented forests in Brazil.
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Threats and Conservation Status

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Interesting Natural History Information

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Did you know…

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Handling & Presentation Tips

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Use Guidelines

  • Ambassador animals are utilized in many ways and many settings to engage, educate, and create connections with zoo visitors. Capybaras may be presented both on and off-grounds in formal (encounters or wildlife shows) and informal (chats or displays) programs. While program presentations typically occur outdoors, they can take place in a variety of environments with proper training and attention to the safety of the animals.
  • It is generally recommended to keep a smaller number of staff members working with an ambassador capybara due to the type of training required to maintain positive, safe, and healthy interactions. Training for these types of programs requires the staff to build lasting relationships with each individual animal to produce the best results. At AZA-accredited facilities with ambassador capybaras, staff members new to the area are trained by managers or supervisors. Only certified handlers may have contact with the animals.

Pubic Contact and Interaction Guidelines

Transportation Tips

  • Capybaras can be trained to voluntarily enter a transport carrier to move between their enclosure and the stage or program area. Alternatively, in the appropriate setting, the capybara may be trained to just walk to the kennel behind the stage and wait to go on. These behaviors are trained using positive reinforcement techniques.

Crating Techniques

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Temperature Guidelines

  •  Air temperature determines if ambassador animals have outside access, although the temperature guidelines should be defined by individual facilities. Identify limitations/restrictions regarding ambient temperatures/weather conditions based on exhibit elements such as shelter, substrate, and water (i.e., heated pool). Capybaras are larger rodents and not overly susceptible to cold temperatures unless extreme conditions exist. One of the facilities that houses ambassador capybaras keeps the enclosure at 26.6 °C (80 °F) and if the temperature falls below 15.6 °C (60 °F) then the capybaras are denied access to their outside space. The second facility has a heated pool kept at 22.2 °C (72 °F) and therefore the temperature threshold for denying outside access is lower at 7.2 °C (45 °F). When capybaras are transported for programs in extreme heat, cooling elements such as fans and misters can be provided.

Acquisition Information

  • This is an SSP animal. Contact Shelley Orloski; s.orloski@akronzoo.org

Resources

Contributors and Citations

  •  This information came from the Animal Care Manual that is in process of being published by AZA

Top Photo Credit: google images