There must have been something special about the way he sprayed her with urine as she performed her “frenzy dance.” This is agouti foreplay. And agouti love lasts forever – these timid little rodents mate for life, like swans and turtle doves. By choosing lifelong partners, agoutis have perfected the use of the buddy system – a shrewd tactic for such naturally nervous animals.
The Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) looks very much like an oversized guinea pig – small round ears, short tail, three-toed hind feet – except for his long, skinny legs adapted for running. He runs with a horse’s gait – trotting, galloping, and jumping around the forest floor. Come to think of it, his tapered head looks somewhat like a horse’s face, and when those slender legs and rounded haunches are in full motion, the agouti can look more equine than rodent-esque.
Whenever something frightens him (a frequent occurrence for this skittish creature), the agouti will completely freeze, standing like a deer in the headlights with one front paw poised in midair. Once he snaps out of it, the agouti vanishes in a flash of sleek brown fur. Some have pale golden, orange, or tan fur, and Panamanian agoutis have been spotted with unique variations such as cream-colored rumps and faint stripes.
Building a Home
Devoted agouti couples make their homes in the lowland rainforests of Central America, and can be found within the 240-acre nature preserve on Isla Palenque. They establish territories of about 3 acres with access to a water source such as a jungle river or forest pool. Within this area, they build several dens where they’ll sleep cuddled together: tangled in the underbrush, hidden in a hollow log, or nestled into interwoven tree roots on the forest floor. When they’re not sleeping or searching for food, agoutis spend a considerable amount of time grooming their glossy fur.
A male and female agouti will forage together within their territory, eating rainforest fruits such as achiotes, cacao fruits, and bananas. Ever heard of the Jains? An Asian Indian religious group so devoted to nonviolence they’ve been known to eat only fruit that falls from the tree? Well, agoutis eat fruit that falls from the monkey. Agouti couples frequently follow troupes of monkeys through the rainforest, scavenging dropped fruit while keeping a safe distance. Wildlife-spotting on Isla Palenque offers the careful observer a chance to see these little scavengers making happy discoveries to the soundtrack of noisy howlers. Once an agouti finds a choice chunk of bright, fleshy fruit, he’ll rest on his hind legs, looking supremely squirrel-like, clutching it in his forepaws and nibbling delicately.
But he’s not a total freeloader – an agouti finds plenty of food on his own, too. An abundance of edible offerings in Panama’s rainforests allows agoutis to squirrel away surplus in underground stockpiles. Along with fruit, agoutis eat nuts, seeds, tender leaf plants, succulent wild vegetables, mushrooms, insects, and occasionally even seafood such as crabs!
Raising a Family
Although the agouti behaves much like a squirrel, you won’t see him hibernating through the winter. There’s no need! His home in the jungles of Panama keeps warm year-round. Consequently, agoutis breed throughout the year, raising litter after litter in their protected territories. One hour after entering the world, a fully-furred baby agouti is up, looking around, and running to keep up with Mom and Dad. A female agouti doesn’t ever experience empty-nest syndrome. After 20 days, her newborn babies are weaned and the next litter is usually on the way.
Meanwhile, Dad is busy protecting the territory. While he may be timid around larger creatures, humans, and predators, a male agouti becomes fiercely aggressive towards any other agouti who hazards to trespass on the family territory.
Protecting Panama’s Agoutis
Throughout Central America, agoutis are hunted for their meat and skin, although these long-standing practices are discouraged. Due to human incursion on their territories, these unique little rodents are rarely spotted in areas other than protected nature preserves. Agoutis are usually diurnal – meaning they’re active during the day – but fear will make them reverse their habits and forage nocturnally. Low-impact trails such as the ones in Isla Palenque’s 240 acres of unspoiled jungle allow hikers to observe agoutis in the wild without alarming them, so the island’s furry friends keep to their normal hours.