- Scientific Name: Cuniculus paca
- Status in the Wild: Common
- Habitat: Cloud Forests, Rainforests, Tropical Dry Forests, Woodlands
- Diet: Herbivore
What is brown and white, can emit sounds that rival a howler monkey, and resembles a huge guinea pig? The spotted or lowland paca – the largest rodent in Central and South America. Known as tepezcuintle in Costa Rica, these so-called jungle rats are nocturnal, and common throughout the country.read more close
Distinguished by their dark brown fur, stout legs, and rows of white spots, the paca can weigh up to 25 pounds. A specially adapted zygomatic arch acts as a resonating chamber inside their heads, enabling the paca to give a hoarse bark or a deep rumbling sound when threatened.
Pacas are herbivores and prefer to dine on fruit – especially mango, avocado, and guava. They also feed on seeds including their favorite, those of the cedro macho tree (a relative of mahogany). Unlike their agouti cousins, pacas cannot balance on their haunches to manipulate food, so they rarely consume hard seeds. When fruit is unavailable, the paca diet is relegated to seedlings, fresh leaves and roots.
Plant-based diets are low in calories and take up room in the digestive track, so pacas compensate in several ways. Like rabbits, they eat their feces to extract nutrients they could not digest the first time around. Additionally, pacas stay still to expend as little energy as possible; even when attacked, pacas make quick leaps, but rarely run great distances.
Pacas live in underground dens that measure approximately eight inches wide and 20-30 feet long. They can dig their own dens, but also modify ones abandoned by other animals. Paca dens have one main entrance and several camouflaged exits. When a predator lays siege to a den, the paca resident explodes out of one of its secret exits, which are often located near water. If threatened, paca do not hesitate to dive into fresh water and swim to safety, as they are excellent swimmers.
Pacas range from east-central Mexico into northern Paraguay, living from sea level up to 10,000 feet in altitude. They prefer forested areas and often congregate near streams and other fresh water sources. In Costa Rica, they are often spotted around Arenal, Manuel Antonio, and forested areas of the Central Valley.
Pacas are monogamous, and each couple shares a territory of approximately 7.5 acres. However, paca pairs often forage for food separately and sleep apart. Mating occurs year-round, and begins when the male initiates a dance of hops, twists and turns in an effort to spray the female with urine. The female often avoids the male at first, and may even attack him, but eventually crouches low to the ground to welcome his approach.
Pacas generally have one or two litters per year, and gestation averages 3.5 months. Females usually give birth to one offspring. While babies wean within three months, they stay with their mother until fully grown. Paca females reach sexual maturity around nine months, while males become sexually active at one year. Pacas can live up to 13 years in the wild.
Status in the Wild:
While spotted pacas are considered a species of least concern, their numbers in Costa Rica are dwindling. Pacas are considered to be the best-tasting wild mammal in the country, and their gentle temperaments and ease around humans make them easy targets. They are often hunted illegally in rural areas. Pacas have also fallen prey to habitat loss, and since they reproduce slowly, paca populations take time to rebound.