The Capybara—Mistake or Marvel of Creation?
HOW would you feel if someone called you odd or stupid? Insulted perhaps? Well, that’s what evolutionist Charles Darwin and others have called me. Imagine, one even said that I’m “a mistake of creation”! Although I am peaceful by nature, this really upsets me. Therefore, I want to clear my name. I’ll tell you about my looks, my likes, and my fears—my good sides and my bad sides. Then you can decide if I am a mistake or a marvel of creation.
Largest in the World
Pardon me. I’m so agitated that I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Mr. Capybara, from tropical South America.* Spanish-speaking folk call me carpincho or chigüiro. These are only 2 of the 190 names I’ve been given. I’m better known, though, as the “largest rodent in the world.”
This sounds like bragging, but it really isn’t. You see, I’m roughly the size of a sheep. Put me on the scales, and the needle swings to a hundred pounds [45 kg]. My twin sister registers 130 pounds [60 kg] or more. Yet, she is sleek compared with a female capybara in Brazil that sets the record—a hefty 200 pounds [90 kg].
“Master of the Grasses”
All that weight is not the result of gorging ourselves on junk food, since we are wholly vegetarian, eating mainly grass. Sometimes we even graze alongside domestic cattle. Respectfully, Amerindians of old called us “master of the grasses.” That’s certainly a more reasonable description than “odd.”
We also eat water plants, and while you are sleeping, we cannot resist sinking our chisel-shaped incisors into a juicy watermelon, a sweet stalk of sugarcane, or a young rice plant.
In fact, whenever you see us, we are nibbling—not because we are gluttons but because we are rodents. Our cheek teeth never stop growing, so the only way to wear them down is by chewing and gnawing until we die.
Nevertheless, as biologists have recorded, we know what to chew on. We pick only “plants of highest protein content,” and, they say, we “are more efficient at converting grass to protein than sheep or rabbits.” Who said we are stupid?
A Pig With Swim Fins?
I admit my looks are, let’s say, characteristic. Protruding eyes; small, round ears; contractible nostrils—all placed high up on my large head, giving my face an expression of perpetual amazement. Some say I look like a “jumbo guinea pig with just a suggestion of the hippopotamus in it.” I can live with that. However, I disagree with the writer who said that my square snout seems to be “carved by a novice out of a sloping tree-trunk.” Personally, I prefer: “A comic face [with] shrewd piggy eyes.”
Of course, I’m no relative of the porkers, but with my short legs and massive, barrellike body, I look the part. Moreover, 200 years ago, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus mistakenly classified me as a pig. Why, have you ever seen a pig with swim fins? Hardly! Yet, that is exactly what the Creator gave me, and believe me, these webbed feet are handy because I love water. In fact, it is my pig-shaped body and love for water that has earned me the nickname water pig.
A Fat Secret
Areas near ponds, lakes, rivers, and swamps—preferably surrounded by woods with thick undergrowth—suit me as home. Not only do I love water but I need it for survival.
However, some three hundred years ago in Venezuela, our love for water brought us trouble. Roman Catholics there were forbidden to eat meat during Lent. Fish, however, was legitimate fare. So the Catholic Church conveniently declared my ancestors to be fish! To this day believers in Venezuela eat us without qualms during Lent.
Fortunately, some of my ancestors escaped. How? Not by making burrows to hide in like other rodents. Rather, when alarmed we head for water, dive in, and swim away with ease. Though my body lacks the streamlined features of other aquatic creatures, I am a superb swimmer. The reason? Here’s my secret.
Because of my layers of fat, volume for volume, I’m only slightly heavier than water. Just imagine, one researcher wrote that while in water I have the grace of a ballet dancer and my movements, he said, remind him of poetry! That’s a far cry from being “a mistake of creation.”
When I am hard-pressed, my webbed feet propel me quickly forward—away from enemies. I swim a good distance underwater and remain submerged for several minutes. Then, with caution, I come up, staying low in the water, exposing only my nostrils, eyes, and ears—just as the hippopotamus does. Enemies, such as feral dogs, jaguars, caimans, anacondas, and humans, have a hard time spotting my nostrils among the water plants. But with my well-developed sense of smell, my nose easily discovers predators.
Since constant exposure to the hot sun quickly cracks and ulcerates my skin, being in the water also prevents sunburn. As my reddish-brown to grayish hair is sparsely distributed, my skin shows through. So to control my body temperature, I simply remain submerged in water or wallow in mud, covering my body with a layer of clay.
“A Nursing Coalition”
Are we ever on land? At least mother has to be there to give birth. After a pregnancy of about four months, from two to eight babies are born, each weighing over two pounds [1 kg]. Their “lighter brown, sleeker coats,” notes one observer, make them look “more smartly dressed” than the parents. A female capybara begins breeding when 15 months old. She may live for ten years and may produce a minimum of 36 babies in her lifetime.
Within hours the babies are walking closely behind mother. Swimming, however, is harder because baby at first is reluctant to go into the water. After a forced launching, the frantically paddling infant will try to catch up with mother, or another female, and climb on her back. Mother, then, willingly serves as a life buoy. The larger the infant becomes, though, the harder it is for it to keep its balance. Soon it rolls off mother’s back, swimming on its own.
Adult females also cooperate in nursing. Mothers feed not only their own young but also the thirsty offspring of other females. Why? “A nursing coalition,” explains wildlife film producer Adrian Warren, “may increase [the youngsters’] chances for survival.”
The Last Word
Meek by nature, we are easy-to-tame pets. One blind farmer in Suriname even used a capybara as a “guide dog.” But we are mostly kept for our meat, which some say is tasty. Venezuela, for example, has ranches where thousands of us are raised for food—a dubious honor. Anyway, I hope by now you like me not merely for the way I taste but for what I am.
Well, what do you think? Am I a mistake or a marvel of creation? Do you agree with Darwin or with me? Of course, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but remember: Darwin has been wrong before!
The animal described here is known as Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris. A smaller species lives in Panama.
[Picture on page 23]
Odd? Stupid? Really! Are we not a fine-looking pair?
[Picture on page 24]
Thousands of us are raised for food—a dubious honor