There are two species of paca: Agouti paca, commonly known as the paca, and Agouti taczanowskii, commonly known as the mountain paca. Though the genus name Agouti may be confusing, pacas and agoutis (family Dasyproctidae) are not in the same family. Pacas are among the largest of all rodents, with a head and body length of 20 to 30.5 inches (50 to 77.4 centimeters) and weight of 13.2 to 31 pounds (6 to 14 kilograms.) Their tail length is 5 to 9 inches (13 to 23 centimeters).
The paca resembles the mountain paca in most features, except the paca is slightly larger, has thinner and harsher fur, shorter nostrils, larger eyes, and thicker claws.
In both species, the upper body fur varies from reddish brown to dark chocolate or smoke-gray. There is a pattern of white or pale yellow irregular spots on the sides, arranged in rows of two to seven. The average number of rows is four. One or two upper rows are shorter and limited to the rear half of the body. Two or more middle rows run from the neck to the rump.
Pacas are found from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. Their range includes Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.
Pacas primarily live in tropical rainforests but are also found in a wide variety of forest habitats, including mangrove swamps, deciduous and semi-deciduous forest, dense upland scrub, and narrow growth along river banks.
Both species of paca eat mainly fruit but their diet changes throughout its range and based on the seasons. Other foods include roots, seeds, leaves, buds, and flowers. In the wild, pacas are herbivores, meaning they eat only plants. In captivity, they are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and flesh. Pacas in zoos eat fruits, vegetables, raw meat, lizards, and insects.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Pacas are nocturnal, meaning that they are most active at night, and solitary animals. In the wild, they have sometimes been seen active in the early morning and late afternoon. During the day, they sleep in a den dug under tree roots or rock outcroppings, or in hollows in trees, usually along riverbanks or hillsides. The den usually has several entrances or exits concealed by leaves.
Pacas are capable swimmers and when they feel threatened, take to the water where they can remain submerged for up to fifteen minutes. They have an acute sense of smell and hearing. They walk along fixed trails, but should a trail become disturbed by humans or other animals, they will abandon it.
Pacas breed year-round. Females are sexually mature, able to mate, at nine months, while males are sexually mature at one year. The gestation, or pregnancy, period is 114 to 119 days. Females have one or two litters of young a year, each usually with one baby but in rare instances, two babies.
PACAS AND PEOPLE
Pacas are hunted by humans for their meat and are often killed by farmers who see them as agricultural pests. However, pacas are important dispersers of seeds from the Attalea oleifera palm tree in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, and Virola surinamensis, a commercial timber tree.
Pacas and mountain pacas are not listed as threatened by the IUCN. However, several wildlife surveys show their numbers in the wild are dwindling, due to extensive hunting and habitat destruction by humans.