These are some of the interesting and amusing capybara behaviours I, or my friends, have witnessed. I have captured all the behaviours that I personally have witnessed on video:
I have friends in Argentina who rescued a baby capybara from her mother’s womb after hunters killed her mother. When my friend became pregnant her capybara, named Juanita, was the first to know. Juanita was aged about 2 1/2 years at the time and started behaving like a baby again, uttering the vocalisations she used to make when she was a baby and sucking on my friend’s finger the way she had done as a baby. My assumption, regarding this behaviour, is that this was Juanita’s way of saying to my friend “you don’t need another baby, I can be your baby again”. The capybaras I know frequently look and act as if they are jealous, often very jealous, and I suspect Juanita did not want to share my friend’s love with another baby.
Juanita looks blissful in the arms of Juan who rescued her
I have friends who live with 2 capybaras, Romeo and Tuff’n. Tuff’n is highly intelligent and devises a number of interesting and amusing behaviours. Romeo is very emotional and well-behaved.
Romeo is a heart stealer. He has a look which melts my heart. It is a rather sad and bewildered look when something happens which makes him unhappy. Romeo gives this look when Tuff’n outwits him. For example, if Romeo and Tuff’n go into the bedroom together in the hopes of being petted on the bed, and as Romeo prepares to jump on the bed from the far side Tuff’n will leap onto the bed right under Romeo’s nose before Romeo has even left the ground. My heart goes out to Romeo when he gives me this look, I just want to make him happy.
When visitors come to my friends’ home to see the capybaras in the swimming pool, Tuff’n amuses himself by swimming alongside where the visitors are standing and splashing them with his powerful, partially webbed paw. He started doing this when he was about 4 years old. Some months later I caught Romeo in the pool practising this technique when he thought no one else was around.
Romeo and Tuff’n get a peanut reward every time they use the potty pan in the bathroom rather than marking their territory around the house with urine.
Tuff’n started going into the bathroom and onto the potty pan and pretending to “potty” (defecate) by dancing around to make a loud, very audible noise as his toes clattered against the metal pan, in the hopes of deceiving the humans into thinking that he is “performing” and giving him a reward. He now gets a double reward for initiative! But unlike humans, and especially human children, he doesn’t take advantage of this by continually dancing around on the potty pan in the hopes of endless rewards. Some days he doesn’t do this behaviour at all.
Scent marking behaviour in capybaras is more common in males than females, but during courtship males and females mark with equal frequency and use both glands. A typical marking sequence for males involves rubbing the morrillo against a shrub or twig then straddling the plant, pressing the anal pocket onto it and sometimes simultaneously urinating on the plant.
Rodent species mark their territory with urine; it is the equivalent of a business card and lets other capybaras/rodents know many useful things about their health, status, reproductive state, etc. It is also a way of marking their territory. Some repetitive marking in “inappropriate places” may be a sign of insecurity as the capybara tries to establish his authority in an area/territory (for example the bed) where he feels vulnerable because his priority there is under threat.
Having watched the humans enjoying life in the pool relaxing on their li–los, Tuff’n decided he wanted the same experience. A plastic li–lo would barely last a second when faced with those sharp, capybara teeth, so Tuff’n moved his cushion to the edge of the pool, jumped in, swam over to the cushion and pulled it in to the pool. He then manoeuvred his body onto the cushion and gently floated around.
Tuff’n loves peanuts and in the evenings a small metal bowl appears into which some peanuts are placed. When Tuff’n finishes these he gently lifts the bowl and lets it fall back onto the sofa to indicate that the bowl is empty and he wants a refill! If more peanuts do not appear Tuff’n lifts the bowl higher, and then higher still and eventually, if still no peanuts have appeared, he chucks the bowl high in the air and lets it clatter very noisily to the floor.
Here’s the video of Tuff’n cutely and patiently asking for more peanuts:
Choco, a neutered male capybara at Nagasaki Bio Park, pioneered a number of new behaviours. Choco was very intelligent and inventive. The senior capybaras in the hierarchy did not like neutered males (presumably because, being so closely related to the females in the herd, they should have left the herd at about 1-year-old as they would have done in their natural habitat).
In winter, Choco and other junior capybaras, were denied access to the Onsen bath by the senior capybaras in the hierarchy. In order to enjoy the Onsen experience Choco began jumping up into the wooden water channel which carries the hot water to the Onsen, where he spent long periods of time enjoying the hot water. At least 6 other capybaras who had been denied access to the Onsen started copying his behaviour.
Interestingly, in some other species including meerkats, it is often lower ranking males who are the most inventive. In the case of meerkats, one of the ethologists who is part of Prof. Tim Clutton Brack’s team who have spent the last 26 years observing meerkat colonies in the Kalahari desert in Africa, put a scorpion in a specially prepared plastic container, to test the cognitive abilities of meerkats. Scorpions are a favourite food of meerkats. In order to reach the scorpion the meerkat had to turn the lid of the plastic container. Most of the meerkats tried to get at the scorpion through the see-through sides of the container which had small holes. But a few clever, low ranking males, worked out how to turn the lid using the upright struts.
Choco learnt how to open the gate to the capybara enclosure and often went out to graze. Ryoko copied him and when she opened the gate, her younger much smaller sister would move forward to wedge the gate open before it shut, allowing Ryoko and a procession of capybaras to escape; a good example of capybara teamwork. A year later I noticed young Prune, a one and a half year-old very low ranking male, trying to open the gate. He had obviously watched Choco and Ryoko and understood exactly the technique for opening the gate, but being so young he was too small to be able to pull the handle down and step backwards pulling the gate open, all at the same time.
In this video, Choco amazes the visitors by opening the entrance gate and going out to greet them:
When Choco was one-year-old and at the bottom of the hierarchy and not getting enough to eat, he started going inside the monkey house and eating the Capuchin monkeys’ food. Amazingly the monkeys tolerated him, but when other capybaras tried to do this they were chased away. Choco was fearless and I wonder if this was part of the reason for the monkeys accepting him. From my observations, it always seemed to me that the monkeys taunted and chased those capybaras who reacted most and got most upset by the monkeys behaviour (rather like human teenagers might). Choco is very calm. Even when Hinase chases him Choco only moves a minimal distance and quickly returns to the spot he occupied before Hinase started chasing him. Brother Donut, by contrast, nervously jumps up as Hinase approaches and runs away and does not return.
As the senior capybaras in the hierarchy often chased Choco, he used to sleep on the laps of visitors knowing that he was safe from attack on a human lap. The visitors absolutely adored this and Choco became the most popular capybara at Nagasaki Bio Park.
Choco sleeping on a lady’s lap. Choco spent over an hour on her lap and she wasn’t going to leave the capybara enclosure while Choco wanted to sit on her lap. Her husband looked increasingly bored!
Unlike some species capybaras do not groom each other. However, one of the most intelligent capybaras at Nagasaki Bio Park, Aoba, understands the advantage of having “friends in high places” and tries to befriend the senior capybaras in the hierarchy. In the case of Hinase, current number 1 in the hierarchy, Aoba’s strategy has been successful. Sometimes when in the pond Aoba nibbles Hinase’s ear which Hinase finds supremely pleasurable. Hinase rolls over, her hair rising in ecstasy, and she looks absolutely blissful. I have never seen any other adult capybara nibble another capybara’s ear. Capybaras love having their ears nibbled by baby capybaras or rubbed by humans.
When Hinase received a very painful bite on her mouth she seemed to derive some relief from the pain by rubbing her morillo. Aoba noticed this and went over to Hinase and rubbed her chin back and forth over Hinase’s morillo. As reward, Aoba is now frequently the only capybara Hinase and Aoba’s mother, Momiji, who is number 2 in the hierarchy, allow into the Onsen to enjoy the warm water in winter. Hinase and Momiji sit under the Onsen shower at the entrance to the Onsen controlling access. On many days they refuse entry to all the other capybaras in the herd! When Donguri was number 1 in the hierarchy she allowed most of the capybaras to come into the Onsen.
Capybaras can be very playful and as you would expect some capybaras are more playful than others. One of the most playful capybaras at Nagasaki Bio Park was Donguri, despite being the oldest capybara in the herd at 10 1/2 years and number 1 in the hierarchy. Hinase and Momiji, the current numbers 1 and 2 in the Bio Park hierarchy, go into the pond together every day and nuzzle and play. They often ride piggyback on each other’s backs in the pond; the keepers call this “surfing”.
You can see Hinase riding piggyback on Momiji in this video:
Capybaras also do backwards somersaults in the pond. Sometimes the somersaults are simply capybaras being playful but sometimes this behaviour is an act of frustration or impatience, often when visitors tease the capybaras by offering them a branch of bamboo, when they are in the pond, but withdraw the bamboo as the capybara leans forward to eat it.
Hinase does a backward somersault in this video:
Male capybaras seem not to discriminate against older females, unlike human males! The male capybaras at Nagasaki Bio Park seemed to find Donguri one of the most attractive female capybara in the herd despite being the oldest capybara by several years; she was 10 1/2 years old. A friend of mine who was a capybara keeper in a zoo in France for 15 years said their “matriarch” gave birth to 3 pups when she was aged 12, and a deformed pup who did not survive, when she was 15 years old. She lived to be 17 years old.
It is very interesting how different capybaras adopt different strategies and behaviours to rise in the hierarchy or gain access to resources: food, mating rights or other rewarding experiences.
I have several friends who keep capybaras and rats as companion animals. From both my and their observations I would say capybaras are extremely sensitive emotionally, and compassionate. There has been a lot of rigourous scientific research showing that rats show compassion and will avoid doing something which gives them pleasure if another rat suffers a painful stimulus as a result.
When I, or my friends, have been very upset or injured their capybaras have sensed this and been extra affectionate. Capybaras seem able to sense which part of the body has been injured and is painful. If my friends are sick the capybaras they live with will spend all day on the bed beside them.
I would say that capybaras may be more compassionate and sensitive emotionally than many/most humans. Perhaps this is in part due to their higher olfactory intelligence. When we are upset our body produces chemicals, like the stress hormone cortisol, which capybaras can smell with their very superior sense of smell.
Choco sleeping on Marc’s lap. Marc felt so privileged
Humans and capybaras are distantly related; humans and rodents diverged about 75 million years ago. We are all mammals. There is evolutionary continuity between all mammal species, indeed between all animals.
The pet capybaras I know understand many words and phrases pertaining to food or activities they enjoy.
In this video Romeo and Tuff’n are asked whether they would like their corn now. Tuff’n says “yes” with an emphatic bark:
Another emotion which ethologists believe animals may experience is embarrassment. One time I was watching Cream, one of Maple’s 5 pups born on April 21, 2016. She wanted to go into the Onsen to enjoy the warm water but knew she might be chased away by the senior capybaras. So instead of climbing up the steps using the main entrance to the Onsen she decided to jump onto the wall and enter at the furthest point from the main entrance. However, she misjudged her jump and slipped unceremoniously back down to the ground. The look on her face was one of embarrassment, hoping no other capybara had noticed!