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15 Agouti Among the best known of all animals of the American tropics, agoutis (Dasyprocta species) are prolific rab- bit- or hare-sized rodents that are probably easily farmed. They are valued for food and are hunted throughout most of their range. Indeed, agouti meat, once common in Latin markets, is now difficult to find because of indiscriminate killing. Agouti hunting is already prohibited in Brazil; restaurants in Belem, for example, once offered a variety of "cotta" (agouti) dishes at prices equivalent to those of choice filet mignon, but since the early 1970s they have been banned from serving it. Other countries will probably have to institute similar bans. Agoutis are active, long-legged, and high-strung. They flee in panic at the slightest alarm. They do not climb but they do burrow occa- sionally, being essentially specialized ground-dwellers that live in tropical forest regions. There have been no organized scientific attempts to raise these swift, shy animals in captivity, but Latin Americans sometimes keep them as "domestics," especially in parks and large gardens. (Agoutis are well known, for instance at the Goeldi Museum in Belem, Brazil.) These animals seem to tame easily, and could perhaps be mass- produced on a large scale like rabbits or guinea pigs. They make affectionate pets, sometimes refusing to return to the wild. A research project on captive breeding of two local agouti species (Dasyprocta mexicana and D. punctata) for food is already under way in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico. AREA OF POTENTIAL USE Most of lowland, tropical Latin America and the Caribbean. ' There are about 11 Dasyprocta species. This is not the rodent called agouti in West Africa. That is the grasscutter (see page 232). 199
200 APPEARANCE AND SIZE MICROLIVESTOCK Agoutis are delicately built, graceful, nimble, and beautifully pro- portioned. They have slender bodies, short ears, and look somewhat like a rabbit that has been "jacked up" in back. Generally, adults are 4~60 cm long and weigh 2-5 kg. Some are even bigger. They run well and are good jumpers. From a standing start an agouti reportedly can leap as high as 2 m or as far as 6 m; however, as long as they are well fed, there is little problem keeping them behind a wall only 1 m high.2 Reportedly, they sometimes climb easy-sloping trees to collect green fruits, but researchers studying Central American agoutis report that they are strictly terrestrial.3 They swim well. The body hair is thick, coarse, and glossy: pale orange to black on the back, and white to yellow on the belly. Some species have faint stripes, and some have a rump that contrasts with the rest of the back. The short tail is partially concealed under the long body hair. DISTRIBUTION Agoutis occur over a vast area from southern Mexico to Paraguay, including many islands in the Caribbean.4 STATUS Because they occasionally damage sugarcane plantings and because the meat is particularly tasty, people hunt agoutis relentlessly, espe- cially near cities and towns. Now, in the l990s, they are becoming rare because of excessive hunting and habitat destruction. Many Latin Americans have never heard of them. In Mexico, for instance, there are few places where agoutis survive, and Dasyprocta mexicana may become extinct if habitat destruction and overhunting continue in its restricted range. In Costa Rica and Panama, agoutis occur only where there is little or no hunting or human interference. 2 Information from D. Butcher. 3 Information from D. Janzen and W. Hallwachs. 4 Agoutis were once imported into the West Indies and released to provide game meat for slaves. Opposite: Agouti. (W. Hallwachs)
202 HABITAT AND ENVIRONMENT MICROLIVESTOCK From sea level to elevations of at least 2,500 m, the adaptable agouti lives in many habitats: moist lowland forests, dry upland forests, thick brush, and savannas. However, although they thrive in secondary growth areas, they are mainly forest dwellers. Nonetheless, they often enter fields to forage, and young animals occasionally are seen in open areas such as grassy stream banks and cultivated fields. BIOLOGY Agoutis shelter in hollows among boulders, in riverbanks, or under tree roots. They also hide in heavy brush and sometimes in holes dug out by other species. These herbivores eat seeds, fruit, stalks, leaves, roots, and other succulent plant parts, as well as occasional insects and fungi. They seem to mate twice each year. The estrous cycle is variable, but is only about 34 days long. The young are born after a gestation period of 3.5 - months. Usually, there are twins; however, single births and triplets have been recorded. Newborns are fully developed and are able to run around within hours. They start feeding on solids within a few days. Puberty occurs at about 9 months of age. Life expectancy is 10 years or more. BEHAVIOR In the wild, agoutis are shy and retiring. Every sense seems constantly triggered for instantaneous action and sometimes they become hyster- ical. If danger threatens, they usually "freeze," but when discovered they stamp their feet as an alarm signal and dash away, nimbly dodging obstacles. Despite excessive timidity, they can be violent among themselves. In undisturbed forests, agoutis are diurnal and are often seen. But around villages they become nocturnal, as a means of self-preservation. For the most part, these rodents live in loosely formed pairs, with previous litters living around their territory as "satellites." There is some "bigamy," some "philandering," and some "divorce."5. Despite their long claws, they display much finger dexterity. To eat, they usually sit erect, crouching on their haunches and holding the food in their forepaws. If it has a skin, they carefully peel it before starting their meal. They save some nonperishable foods (nuts, for 5 Information from D. Janzen and W. Hallwachs.
AGOUTI 203 J The native range of the agoutis. Within this area, 11 species are found, but the best known and most widespread is Dasyprocta punctata. instance) by digging holes in scattered locations, dropping each one in a separate location, stamping it down, and covering it over. This behavior helps disperse the seeds of many species of trees so that agoutis benefit tropical forests and reforestation. USES As noted, agoutis are popular game animals. They are often hunted with dogs that even follow them into the burrows. Agouti meat is tasty, although it is usually said to fall short of the meat of the pace (see page 262) because it is leaner and gamier. HUSBANDRY Agoutis adapt well to captivity. With appropriate care they can be bred without difficulty.6 The nervousness that is pronounced in nature is quickly lost in captivity. The young become tame pets. They can be fed on foods such as leafy vegetables, fruit, potatoes, and bread scraps. Although many wild specimens have become nocturnal, cap- tives readily readapt to daylight. Being entirely terrestrial, agoutis require no trees, but they do need space. Given enough area, they get on well (with each other and with 6 At the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, 2 males and 3 females yielded 38 offspring between 1978 and 1982. See Merritt, 1983.
204 MICROLIVESTOCK ACOUCHIES Close relatives, the green and red acouchies (Myoprocta acouchy and Myoprocta exalts) also desente study. These are smaller animals with longer tails, bearing a little plume of white hairs. Although even more delicate and hypersensitive than agoutis, they can be kept in captivity and breed well. They then become less nentous and are easily handled. Acouchies show remarkable intelligence and even some affection for those they trust. They frequent rainforests, but are rare or even absent in disturbed areas. Adults weigh up to 1.5 kg. The general biology (diet, reproduction, activity rhythm), is almost the same as that of the Mouth but they live in smaller home ranges (0.~1.2 hectares versus 2.5 hectares for the agouti) and travel singly, although belonging to a well-estab- lished family unit. Adult males tolerate the juvenile males. They occur only in Colombia, the Guianas, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Fanning methods would probably be the same as for the agoutis, but acouchies always need plant cover. different species), and they breed freely. To avoid fighting, it seems necessary to separate females from males at puberty. Probably re- moving progeny from breeding pens at weaning could also help avoid most of the interpersonal aggression. In large areas with plenty of cover (banana plants, for instance), groups can be kept, but breeding may be disappointing. Husbandry may be most appropriate in large enclosures (5() 100 agoutis) with some animals then removed to small cages 0.5-1 m2 for selective feedings ADVANTAGES Agoutis are appropriately sized: a dressed carcass can weigh 1-3 kg. The meat is good, and large commercial undertakings in urban centers could profit from the ready market that already exists. The animals are prolific: females can produce up to two litters a year, each litter averaging two offspring. In protected areas, populations may grow fast. These forest dwellers might provide a source of meat and income without destroying the forests in favor of cattle pastures. Also, they thrive in disturbed areas as long as there is some cover. 7 Mem[t, 1982.
AGOUTI LIMITATIONS 205 Experiments in Brazil show that agoutis are highly susceptible to foot-and-mouth disease. The animals might become pests: they eat the roots, leaves, and fruit of agricultural crops and occasionally damage sugarcane and banana plants. However, current experience suggests that if they escape captivity they are quickly caught by hunters and do not reach pest levels. Live agoutis have strong-smelling anal glands that may be offensive to breeders or could contaminate the meat if the animals are carelessly handled. Where the rainforest is destroyed, the agouti population is destroyed. The animals were once well known throughout Latin America, but not anymore. In some areas, therefore, wild breeding stock may not be locally available. Moreover, people may have become sufficiently unfamiliar with them that their value may no longer be appreciated. In captivity, they can be the prey of large birds such as eagles. RESEARCH AND CONSERVATION NEEDS The taxonomy of agouti species needs clarification. Husbandry experiments are required, including studies on topics such as: · Nutrition; · Growth rate; · Shelters and enclosures; · Reproduction; and · Techniques for catching, moving, marketing, and managing the animals. One area where agoutis might profitably be raised is in enclosures in palm plantations. Palms such as the babassu provide food, shade, and shelter, while fallen and rotten logs offer secure retreats from predators. This deserves investigation.8 Instead of clearing vast areas of rainforest for cattle pasture, as is being done in much of Latin America, people might well "farm" agouties in the forests. Few of the settlers flooding into such regions can afford, let alone raise, beef. Small-scale agouti farming offers a promising and inexpensive alternative that would be gentle on the fragile land. x Smith, 1974.