Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris

At the Zoo

You can find our capybara at Puente al Sur, a multi-species exhibit located on the north side of the Zoo near the Little Puffer steam train depot.

Fascinating Facts

Physical Characteristics

Resembling a giant guinea pig, it has a long, coarse but sparsely haired coat which is generally reddish brown to grayish on the upper parts, yellowish brown on under parts and occasionally black on the face. The front legs are shorter than rear legs; the four toes on the front feet and three on the back feet are slightly webbed and have short, strong claws.

The head is relatively large and broad, with short, rounded ears. The muzzle is heavy and squared at the end, with an enlarged upper lip. Its nostrils, eyes and ears are at the top of its head so they protrude out of the water when swimming.

In the mature male, a bare raised area on top of the snout contains greatly enlarged glands to produce odorous secretions. The dominant male is often recognized by his large scent gland.

Life span in the wild is approximately 10 years, and 12 years in captivity.


They range from Panama to northeast Argentina, east of the Andes. Capybaras inhabit a variety of habitats including rainforests, marshes, wetlands, grasslands and savanna, although they are never far from water.

Herbivorous grazers, they eat grasses and aquatic plants. Their incisors are large, white and shallowly grooved to allow them to eat very short grasses. The cheek teeth grow continuously like other rodents. They have a non-perpendicular jaw hinge and grind back and forth rather than side to side.

Social Behavior

An alarm bark is given by the first member of a group to detect a predator. This coughing sound is often repeated several times and the reaction of nearby animals may be to stand alert or rush into the water.

In the wet season, capybaras live in groups of up to 40 animals, but 10 is the average adult group size. A typical group is comprised of a dominant male, one or more females, several infants and young, and one or more subordinate males. Solitary males attempt to insinuate themselves into a group, but are often rebuffed by the group males. Among the males, there is a hierarchy of dominance maintained by aggressive interactions which consist mainly of simple chases. The anal secretions of males and females provide a means of individual recognition via each personal "olfactory fingerprint."

Up to seven babies are born; four is the average litter size. To give birth, the female leaves her group, finding cover nearby. The young are born a few hours later, precocial and able to eat grass within their first week. A few hours after giving birth, the mother rejoins her group. The young follow as soon as they become mobile, three or four days later. Young appear to suckle from any lactating female. Infants and young constantly emit a guttural purr. The young in a group spend most of their time within a tight-knit crèche, moving among nursing females.

Status In The Wild

Capybara are listed as least concern by the IUCN. They are not threatened at present but due to the demand for capybara meat and leather, a management plan has been devised in Columbia and Venezuela for licensed ranches.

The San Francisco Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' coordinated Population Management Plan for capybara.

Animals & Exhibits