Monday, 5 July 2010

Rodents of Bristol 4: The Agouti

Often overlooked in the Zona Brazil section are two large rodents distantly related to the capybaras, although they are closer to the domestic guinea pig or cavy. These are our two male Azara’s Agouti, Dasyprocta azarae. There are eleven species of Dasyprocta currently described, although I would not be surprised to learn there are more, and they range although the tropical rainforests of central and South America. Azara’s Agouti is found from central and southern Brazil, through eastern Paraguay to Argentina.

Agoutis are important animals in the ecology of rainforests, as they are major seed disbursers. Their diet comprises mainly fruit and nuts, with some fungi when these are scarce, and excess food is buried in caches around their territory. As agoutis do not remember all these, and are also major prey animals for everything big enough to eat them (practically every predator in the forest in other words), the uneaten seeds sprout away from where they fell from the parent tree, thus helping forest diversity. Empty Brazil nut husks (Agoutis are one of the few animals that can break into these) also make nurseries for the colourful Poison dart frogs found in the same environment.

Agoutis are diurnal, but are very nervous (see above for why!), living in pairs that forage around their chosen territory. They have been little studied in the wild, so their social structure remains obscure in some ways, and it is not known if different species have different societies. They sleep in tangles of vegetation, hollow logs, or burrows (this may well vary between species) and will sometimes feed after dark as well.

Young agoutis, like young guinea pigs, are born with eyes open and ready to feed on solid food. There are usually 1-4 young in a litter, and they row quickly, becoming independent by 5 months old.. A female may have two litters a year in good conditions. They are surprisingly long lived – up to 20 years is possible.

Agoutis are much hunted by humans, and as a result are quite rare in much of their range, at least close to human habitations, but they can readily make use of abandoned farmland, secondary forest, even parks and gardens if undisturbed. They become tame easily, and it has been suggested that they could be farmed.

Many of the species of Agouti can be seen in zoos, although they are commoner in European zoos than US ones. ISIS lists 114 Azara’s Agouti, all in Europe. It is hoped that we may be able to exchange one of our males for an unrelated female, and breed our own. They make fairly good display animals, but must be protected if in outside enclosures from foxes or cats, which could easily kill them.

(Image from Wikipedia)

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