If you’re anywhere on the Internet, you’ve probably seen them around. They look like a hodgepodge of a guinea pig, beaver, and coconut, but far upsized. They surf on the backs of their parents but double as free cabs and pillows for the rest of the animal kingdom. They’re capybaras, of course, the largest rodents in the world.
But even though they are rodents, we adore these creatures. What’s their secret?
What Are Capybaras and Why Are They So Popular?
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Scientifically, capybaras are known as Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris, or “water pigs.” Most people refer to them as capybaras, or even affectionately “capys” for short. But make no mistake – capybaras aren’t pigs, even if they’re built like ones.
Where Do Capybaras Live?
They’re native to South America, but you can find them lounging in steamy spas in Japan or even wandering North American zoos.
How Big Are the Largest Rodents In the World?
These walking barrels grow up to four feet long and can weigh as much as a Saint Bernard dog. As semi-aquatic creatures with webbed feet, capybaras enjoy a life in and around water, lazing by swimming holes or banks. To them, water is both refuge from predators and relaxation on hot days.
In no particular order, here are some other reasons why capybaras may be so beloved around the world.
1. They’re “Terminally Chill”
Capybaras have a reputation for relaxation. You’ve probably seen the viral videos of a pelican attempting to chomp on a capybara – for whom it’s just another Tuesday – or the ones bathing all day in Japanese hot springs of floating oranges. It doesn’t help their case that their round, yet droopy eyes give them a perma-sleepy look.
Why Are Capybaras So Chill?
So, why are they so chill? Joan Daniels, curator of mammals at Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, suspects it has something to do with their natural behavior.
“They just have that calm demeanor about them, but that may also be part of their survival techniques in the wild,” she says. “They’re quiet and stealth and move slowly and methodically, and I think a lot of it is that’s what people are seeing.”
Are Capybaras Friendly With Each Other?
Capybaras like being around each other, according to Melanie Typaldos, president of the ROUS Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving and raising awareness of the lives of capybaras in captivity. Especially in the wild, capybaras like to stick together, with groups usually numbering at around 10 to 40 individuals.
Do Capybaras Have Predators?
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There’s also well-documented proof of capybaras lounging with all sorts of species outside their own, sometimes even their own predators.
“I’ve seen it in the wild, where they’re just sitting right next to a caiman. If it weren’t hungry, it could just jump out there and eat them,” Typaldos recounts, then laughing. “But [the capybaras] don’t seem to care. I don’t know why.”
But it’s certainly not because capybaras don’t fear their natural predators. Jaguars and caimans, for example, love snacking on capybaras.
“‘Obviously they have fear of their natural predators, or there wouldn’t be any of them left,” Typaldos says.
Read More: These Animals Get Creative To Get Some Sleep
2. They’re Friendly and Smart
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Outside of the wild, capybaras can recognize their human counterparts and often enjoy interacting with them. Typaldos, who is a capybara owner herself, says her pet capys know all sorts of tricks, from turning in a circle to shaking hands.
How Friendly Are Capybaras?
Capybara personalities span the spectrum, and their preferences for company, human or not, vary. While we might feel good seeing one cuddling up with a cat or sleeping beside a bunny like a furry social butterfly, capybaras don’t necessarily get along with everybody. Typaldos says, for example, not all of them like dogs.
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How Do Capybaras Care For Their Young?
Within their own herds, capybaras take care of themselves and each other. Mothers nurse youngsters communally, and the adults round up babies to ensure their safety. Said babies are born independent, Daniels says, and highly active. On top of that, she adds, “They’ll often ride on [their mother’s] back when she’s in the water, which I’m sure is just very cute to see.”
3. They Look Funny, but Familiar
Brookfield Zoo’s capybara, Carsie, enjoys lounging in the sun like the rest of us, resembling an ancient Egyptian sphynx as he soaks up warmth and attention. But another reason Carsie is so popular, Daniels thinks, is because of who capybaras resemble.
What Do Capybaras Look Like?
“They have those cute little ears, a rounded face,” she describes. “Their offspring, which are called pups, are just darling. They look like little guinea pigs.”
Are Capybaras Rodents?
Those unaware of the capybara’s history may have some trouble guessing their family tree at first, but they are rodents.
“People come up and they think maybe it’s a dog. They look at it and they’re like, ‘Well, no, it’s not a dog, ‘cause its ears are weird,’” Daniels says. “Then they simply can’t guess, because it kind of looks like a beaver, but then there’s this cute little puffy tail.”
Be warned that if you do try to pet a capybara, they certainly don’t feel as soft as their guinea pig relatives. Their coats, evolved to dry quickly, might puff up when they’re happy, Typaldos says, but they’re far from fluffy. In fact, she likens the experience to petting a broom.
4. They Are Skilled Swimmers
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Capable of holding their breath for up to five minutes, if capybaras sense a threat in the wild, they’ll dive underwater to hide until it passes.
Can Cayparas Swim?
At home, though, Typaldos often takes dips with her capybaras, who flourish in the water. They’re as graceful as seals when they swim, she says, and playful too.
“I had one capybara who always swam upside down. It was ridiculous,” she recalls. “And then he would come up to me, and he would want me to grab him – like his legs – and spin him around underwater. He would go maybe 15 spins before he had to get another breath of air.”
Swimming is another favorite pastime for Brookfield Zoo’s visitors too.
“Sometimes all you see is the top of their little head with their little ears poking out,” Daniels says. “[They’re] kind of submerged and tooling around in the water.”
Read More: The 5 Senses Animals Have That Humans Don’t
5. Videos of Capybaras Have Made Them Icons
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One of the incidents that launched capybaras into Internet stardom was their viral takeover of a wealthy Argentinian neighborhood a few years ago. During the pandemic, when many residents sheltered in place, capybaras – known as carpinchos in Argentina – took advantage of the empty parks and neighborhoods. They caused quite a ruckus as they roamed about: chewing up lawns and roses, knocking delivery drivers off their bikes, even facing off with pet dogs.
Are Capybaras Endangered?
While the moment of virality spawned many memes of carpincho comrades, the news did flag broader trends of habitat loss due to urbanization. The IUCN last evaluated capybaras as species of least concern, but capybaras are not exempt from the pressures of habitat loss and fragmentation, on top of being hunted in some areas. Ecologists pointed out that these carpinchos were not invaders, but rather the land’s original inhabitants.
“Mostly, capybaras live on open grasslands, in floodplains – that’s their preferred habitat,” Typaldos says. “And those are also areas that people like.”
6. Capybaras Are Just Plain Cute
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The bottom line is: Capybaras are just the right combination of cute and comical. Whether it’s seeing capybaras in wildly out-of-context situations or seeing one hanging out with a gang of predators, capybaras are adorable and quirky enough to snag our attention.
“The way that they act is a little bit comical, you know, any animal that lets a bird perch on its head,” Daniels says. “They seem very nonplussed, or just unbothered, by those sorts of things.”
So maybe we can learn from the capybara. If life throws a bird at your head, well, don’t panic and let it go along for the ride.