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Is Florida About to Be Swamped With Capybara?

Too much capybara can be a bad thing.

by Sarah Emerson
Aug 20 2016, 4:00pm

Image: Flickr/CapybaraJP

Capybara are real damn cute. Look at this bugger. In fact, capybara are so endearing, that some people may have been importing them to own as pets.

A capybara moment. Image: Wikimedia Commons

This might explain why the 100-pound rodents, which are native to South America's marshlands, have been showing up in places where they don't belong. According to biologist Elizabeth Congdon, an assistant professor at Bethune-Cookman University, the state of Florida could have a serious capybara problem—and it might be the fault of exotic pet owners.

For the last few decades, random capybara sightings have been reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission by befuddled Florida residents. In 2001, several critters were said to have escaped a captive herd near Alachua. That same year, one was killed on Interstate 10. Others have seen them feeding along the banks of local rivers.

Up until now, there's been no concrete evidence that Florida's capybara have been breeding, even though the feral animals had to have been coming from somewhere. Their origin story is actually a bit of a mystery, involving rumors of capybara being released by pet owners, sneaking out of zoos, or even fleeing research facilities. Since sightings have been sporadic, biologists haven't been able to tell whether the animal has become an established invasive species, meaning a threat to native wildlife.

This video is relaxing.

However, in a presentation at the 53rd Annual Conference of the Animal Behavior Society, this is exactly what Congdon said might be occurring. Based on a known population of around 50 capybara in northern Florida, Congdon believes the species could be thriving and dispersing throughout the state's waterways. In order to understand what effects they might be having on flora and fauna, she also announced that she'll be conducting a systemic review of the aquatic rodents.

"Capybaras have been introduced to northern Florida. Several sightings suggest they have been breeding," Congdon told Red Orbit. "They might be able to make a go of it in the United States."

Florida is no stranger to the catastrophic capabilities of invasive species. Experts estimate that 500 types of non-native fish and wildlife roam the state, though not all of them are considered harmful. Many of these invaders entered Florida legally through the exotic pet trade, and one way or another, crept into native ecosystems. Earlier this year, I wrote about Florida's Burmese pythons, which are so prolific and threatening that biologists now host annual culling festivals to spread awareness about their presence.

Still, when it comes to invasive animals—especially those often kept as pets—humans aren't always willing to do what's best for the environment, according to science. After I covered Florida's Burmese python cull, I received a slew of emails from passionate snake owners, condemning the event for being unnecessarily cruel. While these critics couldn't provide evidence that pythons weren't wreaking havoc on Florida's ecosystems (they are), they were certain that killing them was the wrong answer.

Here's what a nutria looks like. Image: Flickr/Beatrice Murch

Congdon suspects that capybara could mirror North America's invasive nutria—a semiaquatic rodent that caused extensive damage to marshes and wetlands. The species was first introduced for the fur trade in the late 19th century, and has persisted ever since. Like the nutria, it's possible that Florida's capybara could ravage aquatic ecosystems by overgrazing, and disrupt the marshy areas along riverbanks. If capybara are free from natural predators, they could also displace native wildlife that occupy similar ecological niches.

Capybara aren't endangered in their native South American habitat, but they are extremely vulnerable to over-hunting, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. In some regions, capybara have been effectively wiped out for their meat and skin.

Still, without any evidence of their invasive effects, there's no need to panic over Florida's capybara yet. But if you see one roaming the swampland, you should definitely contact a local biologist. Hopefully, in the near future, we'll be able to learn some fascinating things about the world's largest rodent.

"We want to keep them from spreading," Congdon added, "but can we please not kill them all so I can study them?"

I somehow suspect that won't be a problem.