If you are a regular here at the Houston Zoo, you might have noticed an unfamiliar animal face in the John P. McGovern’s Children Zoo. It is a very interesting and unique face, and one that most guests might not recognize immediately. While we are in the midst of some rearranging and exhibit construction, one of our very special Ambassador Animals has been taking a daily vacation out on exhibit. Wesley has been enjoying his time in the public eye, but he has left many guests scratching their heads trying to figure out just exactly what type of animal he is.
Keepers have gotten many different guesses from guests over the past few weeks, but we will just go ahead and tell you that Wesley is a Patagonian cavy or mara. While he may look similar to a rabbit, he is not actually closely related to rabbits. Wesley is a type of rodent, and you could think of him as a giant version of a guinea pig, or a smaller version of a capybara.
Rodents are one of the most diverse groups of mammals on the planet, and they comprise over 40% of all mammal species!* Rodents can look very different, but the one thing they have in common is their teeth. All rodents have two pairs of incisors, their front teeth, that continue growing for their entire lives. Rodents use their teeth in many different ways: beavers gnaw down trees to build dams and lodges, porcupines eat bark and twigs from trees and mole rats use their teeth to excavate their burrows.
Cavies/maras, like Wesley, can be found on the pampas grass plains of Argentina. Maras are grazing animals. They feed on grasses and live in communal burrows, which they dig themselves. Maras use their long legs to evade predators, and can reach speeds of 20 – 25 mph. Maras are considered “threatened” in the wild. The major threats they face are habitat loss and competition from invasive species, such as European hares.
By visiting the Houston Zoo and recycling your paper products, you can help save animals like Wesley in the wild.
*Animal Diversity Web – University of Michigan Museum of Zoology