All of my readers surely know that Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris is the scientific name for capybaras such as my wonderful pet, Caplin Rous. What you might not know is that there are two species of capybaras, or possibly one species with two subspecies. The lesser known capybara, Hydrochoerus isthmius, is commonly called the lesser capybara, probably because it smaller than the common capybara and not because it is lesser known.
Sadly, very little data is available on lesser capybaras. Unlike the common capybara whose range extends across vast swaths of eastern South America, the lesser capybara has a very restricted range of Panama south of the canal to northern Colombia and into north-eastern Venezuela. The range does not overlap with the common capybara.
Ever since I learned of their existence, I have been searching for information and photographs of lesser capybaras but they are virtually undocumented on the web. Wikipedia has recently granted them their own page but the information is minimal and the photo small and not of hight quality. Imagine my joy when I found a blog post by Michael Peters featuring the great photo that you see at the top of this post. Since Michael made it clear that he’d taken the photo in Panama, this had to be the elusive lesser capybara!
Species descriptions of the lesser capybara don’t give much information about what distinguishes it from the common capybara. For comparison, the photo above shows a capybara that I saw in Venezuela. The color difference may not be real, the Panamanian capybara looks like it is covered in mud, a common condition for both wild and tame capys.
One thing that I know is different about the two species is the chromosome count. In lesser capybaras this is 2n=64, while in common capybaras it is 2n=66. The lesser capybara is probably also smaller than the common capybara, although varying accounts put its top weight at anywhere from 66 lbs to 100 lbs, which is within the range of smaller common capybaras. Caplin Rous’ weight varies from 100 to 110 lbs so it is even possible that he is a lesser capybara on the basis of weight.
Michael got some excellent shots, including the one above of a family group. It looks like the female is standing and the male is sitting behind two large juveniles.
Michael made some interesting observations about the interaction of the capybaras with the caracara you can see perched on one of them in the photo above:
The Capybara were standing out in the rain. A Yellow-headed Caracara (a medium sized hawk) and landed on one of the capybara’s backs. The caracara began to feed (I assume on ticks or other pests). The capybara stood still, then laid down and after the caracara was finished with one side, rolled over onto the other. The caracara then flew over to the next waiting capybara and repeated the sequence. It did this with all 4 members of the group.
This is especially interesting since caracaras will kill and eat very young capybaras.
These capybaras, seen at the Gamboa Rainforest Lodge, may not be as approachable as the ones I saw in Venezuela. Michael says that they appeared nervous and ready to run for cover. He took all his photos from the distance shown in the above image.
Micheal also got this great photo of an agouti, a small deer-like rodent that people often mistake for a capybara.
Needless to say, my next trip will be to Panama! Actually, I’ve been wanting to go back for years. I lived there with my grandparents when I was a child–my father was Panamanian–but I have no recollection of capybaras or agoutis. I’m older and wiser now and I have a good camera.