A jumpy Paca

by Matthew Cobb

This video from a forest camera was sent to me, along with the ID, by a colleague, Professor Richard Preziosi, who’s visiting some of our University of Manchester undergraduate students who are spending a year working in Ecuador as part of their degrees. (Yes that is a recruitment plug!)

The student – Roberto Padovani – is studying Biology and is working in the forest. If the title of the video is anything to go by, this recording was made in the first week. Roberto will have set up a series of video cameras that turn on when an animal comes near. This skittish Paca is the result.

The Paca is a rodent – there are two species that live in the region, the Lowland Paca (Cuniculus paca) and the Mountain Paca (Cuniculus taczanowskii). I *think* this is a Mountain Paca – it seems a lot darker than the Lowland ( I could be wrong!). What exactly it’s frightened of, I’m not sure.

I am *not* a rodent expert at all, and in researching this I have found it confusing – the genus Cuniculus is sometimes replaced by Agouti, which is another (but similar) animal altogether. Agoutis (Dasyprocta punctata) have different anatomy and behaviour. As this website says:

The Lowland paca has a similar shape to the agouti but is a bit larger and usually only comes out at night. What distinguishes them most is that the Paca has creamy white spots on its brown body and a white belly.Like the agouti, it eats a lot of seeds. Pacas are a favorite prey for jaguars and pumas, and their meat is prized by local hunters. With so many things wanting to eat them, Pacas are hard to see in the rainforest. If you want to see one, you should go out after dark.

Although the animals are clearly different I’m still a bit confused about if and when the genus was switched. Maybe a WEIT reader who knows more than I do (not difficult in this respect) can help?

The word ‘Paca’ apparently means, with remarkable imagination, ‘animal’. And if the carnivorous amongst you think those thighs look tasty – you’re not the only ones. They are eaten all across Latin America, and are seen as quite a delicacy. Thankfully, they are not endangered, and there are various projects to rear them commercially for meat. How could anyone eat this beautiful animal?

Cuniculus taczanowskii Picture from here

According to the New Encyclopedia of Mammals:

“Pacas have often been included with the agoutis and acouchis as a separate subfamily of the Dasyproctidae; they are not dissimilar in appearance, but have relatively shorter legs, less reduced digits on the hind feet, and a spotted pelage. To add to the confusion, the scientific name of the Paca is Agouti [not here, it's not – MC], which in common parlance is applied to the Dasyprocta species. Pacas usually occur in forested areas near water, often spending the day in burrows excavated by themselves or abandoned by other animals. They emerge at night to feed on leaves, stems, roots, nuts, seeds, and fruit, and may be a major pest of cultivated land.”

Latin America is full of what are called Cavy-like rodents, including Coypu (which are now well-established in certain areas of the UK having escaped from fur farms),  Hutia,  Pacarana, Agoutis, Chinchillas, the Spiny Rat, Degu, and the delightfully-named Tuco-tuco, which in some parts of Latin America are considered to be pests:

                                                     Photo: J.F.B.Stolz From here.

Other South American rodents include the guinea pig, the monogamous mara and the world’s largest rodent, the Capybara, which are so big they are plain scary. Capybara also don’t like snow and make strange clicking noises:
According to the marvellous New Encyclopedia of Mammals (you don’t get any damn Wikipedia on MY watch, folks):
“Externally, many of these rodents have large heads, plump bodies, slender legs, and short tails – as in the guinea pigs, the agoutis, and the giant capybara, the largest of all rodents at over one meter (39 in) in length.”
There is a controversy over whether the ancestors all these rodents reached South America by rafting from Africa, when the continents were much closer, or whether they originally came over from North America. What I am still unclear about is what it was about the ecology of Latin America that enabled such rodent radiation – perhaps the absence of large forest herbivores helped. Any ideas?

28 Comments

  1. still learning
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Loved the capybara’s cold foot reaction at 0:17. That clicking vocalization sounds like someone tapping out Morse code.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted January 30, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      I suspect the clicking is not vocalization at all, but tooth-grinding (thegosis)

  2. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Regarding the bottom video Matthew ~ what an amazing creature!

    I went to the Youtube channel & this is what the uploader has to say regarding Dobby who it seems is a house pet born in Texas & was moved to the Pacific Northwest when he was 3 weeks old:-

    Dobby’s first snow experience involves a lot of napping in the kitchen. He dutifully followed me around outdoors as I did my chores, but when I went back into the house and got the camera, he made it very clear that he was not going to “play in the snow” for the benefit of his YouTube followers. He is making two noises in this video. His usual purring is how he communicates with his herd (me). When I can’t see him and call “Dobby!”, he answers with a purr. The clicking you can hear (twice) is a very soft version of his attack mode clicking. This is the noise you don’t want to hear when you are trying to put his harness on, for instance. When it is very loud and accompanied by a backward move and stomp of his hind feet, you are in big trouble!

  3. Posted January 29, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    The animal in the first video is not a paca, but an agouti (Dasyprocta sp.)– it’s diurnal, not spotted, and not as chubby as a paca. The common and scientific names are confusing! I’ve seen both species in the wild in Costa Rica, and I think both also occur in Ecuador.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted January 29, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Goddamit, Richard! You made me do bad! All I know about is maggots!

      • Richard Preziosi
        Posted January 29, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        I can’t get much agreement here in Amazonian Ecuador from people who see these regularly. Everyone does agree it’s a ‘wanta’ (which is Quichua for an agouti/paca type thing that is brown, rather than a lowland paca which is a ‘watusa’)

        • Posted January 30, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

          In Costa Rica, agoutis (Dasyprocta) are called “guatusas” (obviously cognate with “watusa”), and pacas are called “tepezcuintles”. The former name has obviously spread widely in Spanish-speaking America; the latter sounds Nahuatl-ish to me.

      • Dominic
        Posted January 30, 2013 at 2:36 am | Permalink

        Actually coypu were wiped out in the UK in 1989 thank goodness http://www.the-piedpiper.co.uk/th1f.htm
        When I was 18 I considered applying for a job as a coypu hunter, sadly with no driving licence (still cannot drive) it was a no-no!

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted January 31, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

          Shame!
          Did they get the wallabies too?

  4. Posted January 29, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    In Argentina we say “Todo lo que camina va a parar al asador”, or rough translation “Everything that walks goes to the barbecue”.

    First time I read they plan to industrialize. Maybe Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have a lot of cows to put “al asador”, but usually is a prey for hunters. Or country delicacy. It is good prepared “escabeche”.

    No expert in the field, but maybe large “estepas” (kind of savannas) allowed for the expansion of these rodents?

  5. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    MC quote:-

    “What I am still unclear about is what it was about the ecology of Latin America that enabled such rodent radiation – perhaps the absence of large forest herbivores helped. Any ideas?”

    I looked it up [yes on Wiki!] & 40% of mammal species are in the order Rodentia

    According to the same “source” their success is probably due to their small size, short breeding cycle, and ability to gnaw and eat a wide variety of foods. My own thought is that some species of rodent can produce three largish litters a year which must be a winning strategy when a new source of food becomes available or when recovering from a population crash. Suppose there is a event which culls all similarly sized animals, then it is likely that the rodents can recover their numbers so quick that their rivals are left eating dust.

    I also speculate that they are very smart/curious by nature & will “experiment” with new foods/environments.

    I’m a bit embarrassed to ask this question, but is there any grain of truth in a story I heard from a pest controller? He claimed that rats are canny & have a “chief taster” system ~ a rat will sample a new food source & fellow rats will wait to observe the effect before indulging. I was down the pub at the time though :)

    • microraptor
      Posted January 29, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard that claim about rats, too. However, it sounds an awful lot like group selection.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 29, 2013 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

        Might just be that a rat avoids food near a rat corpse & pest controllers have added 2 + 2 & got 5

        • microraptor
          Posted January 29, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

          Sounds more reasonable to me.

  6. Posted January 29, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    If you want to see one you should go out at night. If you don’t want to be eaten by a jaguar, you should not go out at night.

  7. Diane G.
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    I think Dobby is adorable. I’d hate to see his incisors, though.

  8. Jim Thomerson
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I’ve eaten lapara in Colombia, and dried chiguire (capybara) in Venezuela. Lapara is similar to an agouti. I saw a pet agouti who was friendly and affectionate. In Venezuela chigurire are classified as fish, and eaten during Lent. Ranchers round them up and make enough money off them to pay a year’s operating expenses.

  9. marksolock
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  10. Dominic
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t want to put people off but it can be dangerous. In 2009 a former library colleague was tragically killed in Ecuador while doing research – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/ecuador/4805216/British-researcher-shot-in-Ecuador-while-searching-for-monkeys.html#

  11. Dominic
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    Don’t forget the giant beaver Castoroides as well. South America underwent an age of giant predatory birds didn’t it? Perhaps it was the lack of antelope or deer-like animals that enabled rodents to expand the number of niches they occupied? Tim Flannery wrote an excellent book on the evolution of mammals in Nthe Americas, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples, but I read it many years ago & cannot recall it. Other creatures that thrived in South America were of course marsupials, sloths & cingulates like armadillos etc. Why?

  12. Diego
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    It’s not just the caviomorph rodents, although they are certainly the most conspicuous. The sigmodontine rodents (which include the phyllotines, the group I worked on in grad school) are extremely successful (~3,000 spp.) and their center of diversity is South America. They are thought to have originated in North America and to have played a big part in the Great American Faunal Interchange. But it is unclear how many invasions of South America there were and by what route (island hopping or via the isthmus). There is also some uncertainty about the timing, but there must have been at least one explosive adaptive radiation in South America.

    P.S. I loved seeing a wild agouti in Costa Rica the last time I visited that country.

    • Lars
      Posted January 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      I used to see them fairly regularly when I was on Barro Colorado, and found them faintly unsettling – they looked like what I imagined Hyracotherium must have looked like, back in the day, both in size and appearance. Very attractive creatures, mind you.

  13. Jim Mauch
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    If you like the crocoduck you will like the Patagonian Mara(Dolichotis patagonum). Is it a rodent, a rabbit or a deer? Check Arkive:

    http://www.arkive.org/patagonian-mara/dolichotis-patagonum/

  14. whyevolutionistrue
    Posted January 30, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Ok, Cobb, that crack about Wikipedia was uncalled-for!

  15. Siggy
    Posted February 9, 2013 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Well, I’m a little late on commenting but I could imagine rodents continuously growing front teeth allow them to get into hard shelled nuts and fruits that other groups of mammals can’t. Here in Costa Rica I now of a couple trees that drop large fruits that contain nuts that you would need a hammer or a grinder to crack. I suspect the only animals that can crack those nuts are rodents.

    And the tepezsquinte (paca) are consider the best tasting of all wild game here. The locals are crazy about them.

    • microraptor
      Posted February 9, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      I believe there’s been some specualation that some of the larger hard-shelled nuts and fruits that aren’t consumed by any known large mammals in Central and South America may have been part of the diet of Gomphotheres, now extinct relatives of modern elephants that were found in North and South America until some time between ten and six thousand years ago.

      • Siggy
        Posted February 10, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I think I read something along those lines about avocados and giant sloths that were large enough to eat them with the whole seed.

  16. Posted April 6, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Looks like Dasyprocta punctata rather than a paca, or maybe even a Myoprocta species, because of the size. Pacas, agoutis, and agouchies are all very common protagonists of the camera trap images I’ve been collecting in another part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, sometimes it can be a bugger to tell the agoutis and agouchys apart when there isn’t a size reference.


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