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Capybaras (Hydrochoerus spp.) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature


  •  Recent genetic studies place Hydrochaeris within Family Caviidae
    • Includes cavies, maras and guinea pigs
    • Previous taxonomies considered capybaras to be in their own family, Hydrochoeridae
  • Uncertainty regarding how capybaras relate to other South American rodents
  • Species debate
    • H. isthmius considered a distinct species by some taxonomists
      • Genetically distinctive: karyotype 2n-64 and FN=104 (Mones 1991)
    • Not recognized as separate species by other researchers (Flynn 2008)
    • IUCN considers two separate species (as of November 2016)

Local names

  • Some 190 local common names, most of native origins
    • Kapiyva or "master of the grasses" in one Amazon tribe's native language
  • Spanish: carpincho, capibara, chigüiro, maja, poncho

Scientific Name

  • From Greek Hydro chaeris meaning "water hog"


  • Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris (Linnaeus, 1766)
  • Sus hydrochaeris (Linnaeus, 1766)

Evolutionary History

  • Ancestors of modern capybara: cavy-like rodents (cavimorphs)
    • Late Eocene to Early Oligocene (37.5 to 31.5 million years ago), Chilean Andes
  • Cavimorphs perhaps arrived in South America from Africa
  • True capybaras first recorded in Argentina about 9 million years ago
  • As many as 56 separate fossil species, most originally described solely on basis of teeth
    • Did not reflect changes in teeth shape as a capybara ages
    • In actuality, not so many species--reflect different ages, not different species
    • Revision needed
  • About 3.5 million years ago, capybaras dispersed to North America across the Panamanian land bridge
  • During the Pleistocene Ice Ages, capybaras lived in southern U.S.
    • Pleistocene fossil sites of Neochoerus pinckneyi (40% larger than modern capybara) in Florida, South Carolina, Texas
    • Pleistocene fossil discovered in 1995 from Ice Ages pond sediments, San Diego County, California (Deméré 2007)
  • In Pleistocene, capybara often associated with bizarre, large armored glyptodonts in wet habitats
  • Only one genus and two species living today

Cultural History

Documentary appearances

  • The Life of Mammals - 2003, BBC
    • In the episode titled Chisellers, David Attenborough discusses the capybara.
  • The Living Planet - 1984, BBC
    • In the episode titled Sweet Fresh Water, David Attenborough follows the capybara and other species along the Amazon River.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Rodentia

Family: Caviidae

Genus: Hydrochoerus - Brunnich (1772)

Species: Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris (greater capybara)
Species: Hydrochoerus isthmius (lesser capybara)

Describer (Date): Linnaeus, 1766. Systema Naturae, 12th ed., 1:103 for Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris Goldman, 1912. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection, 60(2):11 for H. isthmius.

Page Citations

McKenna & Bell (1997)
Mead et al (2007)
Rowe & Honeycutt (2002)
Wilson & Reeder (2005)
Wyss. et al (1993)
Kurtén & Anderson (1980)

SDZWA Library Links