Lifeform of the week: Capybara, California’s newest celebrity

It was Capybara-rama on the Internet last week. What are these strange animals and how on earth did one end up in a California wastewater plant?

Scotland has its Loch Ness monster, Mexico has the chupacabra, and, in recent years, California had developed its own mystery creature – an enormous rodent reportedly seen haunting the city of Paso Robles. But unlike “Nessie” and company, this latest strange beast has been exposed to be a real animal – a capybara, the largest rodent on earth.

R.O.U.S. alert

Image Credit: schmeeve.

Over the past three years, Paso Robles game wardens received two reports of possible capybara sightings, but in each case the animal left no more than footprints as evidence of its visit. But things got interesting last month (July, 2011) when workers at a wastewater treatment plant spotted an unfamiliar critter roaming the grounds. Before it retreated into a river, plant employee Nick Kamp managed to snap some photographs of the animal, from which wildlife officials were at last able to confirm its identity.

Last week, as news of California’s capybara spread, Kamp’s photos went viral on the internet and “R.O.U.S” quickly became the most frequently typed four characters on Twitter. (R.O.U.S. stands for Rodents Of Unusual Size, for those of you who don’t regularly watch The Princess Bride.)

Just how big is this thing?

Game wardens estimate the Paso Robles capybara’s weight at somewhere between 100 and 120 pounds. Such a gigantic rodent may sound inconceivable, but wild capybaras regularly grow to over four feet in length and females (the bulkier sex of the species) can weigh as much as 140 pounds. Other large rodents – like the Eurasian beaver, which can reach over 70 pounds – still trail far behind the massive capybara.

With flamingos for scale. Image Credit: Beatrice Murch.

What’s it doing in California?

Check out those water-friendly feet. Image Credit: Don DeBold.

Capybaras are found in much of South America, but are not native to North or Central America. And while their partially webbed toes make them excellent swimmers, they’re not so good that they could cross the distance by water. Capybaras found in the wild in the U.S. are more likely fugitives from captivity (Florida is rumored to be host to a batch that escaped from a research facility in 2001). Unlike their vicious cinematic alter egos the R.O.U.S., capybaras are pretty easy-going and this has led to their becoming popular pets in some places. While California law forbids this, it’s still probable that this particular rodent began its career as an exotic house pet.

How long before feral capybaras take over the entire West Coast?

Crafty capybaras eye an open gate. Image Credit: Jason Langlois.

While Florida’s escaped pets (monitor lizards, Burmese pythons, the list goes on …) seem determined to overrun the poor state, California officials don’t seem too concerned about capybaras becoming the next high-profile invasive species. With The Terminator no longer serving as governor, there are no action-packed plans to take out the rodent using automatic weapons, or even ordinary traps. So far the animal is being allowed to go about its business. This isn’t surprising; despite their colossal size, capybaras aren’t particularly threatening. They’re vegetarians, and somewhat picky ones at that, specializing in grasses and aquatic plants. More prey than predator, meaty wild capybaras in South America make a tasty treat for large cats, reptiles and also humans. Many years ago, the Catholic Church even classified the semi-aquatic capybaras as fish – rendering them acceptable cuisine during Lent. A bit of a stretch perhaps? Especially since they’re said to taste more like pork.

What’s next for the California Capybara?

With veggies for scale. Image Credit: Eric Kilby.

“He seemed pretty content,” Kamp is quoted as saying in the Los Angles Times. “He was pretty happy in there.” The state’s department of fish and game seems to agree. As long as the rodent isn’t causing problems or, conversely, being threatened by hunters, they’re willing to leave the matter alone. But is just taking it easy the best thing for an overnight celebrity like the capybara? Fame is fleeting, especially that achieved on the Internet. This animal is going to need an agent if it wants to stay hot, and probably a catchy name too. Something like “Cali-bara.”

More Lifeforms from Alex Reshanov:

Agave, from booze to biofuel

Portuguese Man o’ War, a crew of four

Naked mole-rat genome exposed

Brown tree snakes, slithering pariahs of the Pacific islands

Skunks warn eyes, torment nose

For all lifeforms

Alex Reshanov

MORE ARTICLES