Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 3

July, 1941


By M. V. Walker,
Associate Park Naturalist,
Crater Lake National Park.

The peccary, a species of wild pig, is only a little fellow, but he can defend himself against all comers by polluting the air with such an offensive odor of musk that other animals will clear out in a hurry. He can, at will, launch such a terribly nauseating attack that only he and his kind can withstand it. The barrage not only is olfactorily devastating; it produces effects similar to those resulting from the modern tear-gas bomb. It all comes from the secretion in a musk gland in the animal's back - a combined defense-offense mechanism that enables him to conquer and hold territory without even fighting for it. His mere presence, or the scent of his nearness, often causes other animals to flee.

This little piggie, also known as the javelins, or musk hog, was the only species of pig in North America, when white men first came to this continent. Fossil bones reveal his presence in this country for many millions of years. His kind is comparatively scarce now, due to man's hunting. He is confined mainly to isolated regions in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, including the Organ Pipe Cactus, Tonto, and Saguaro National Monuments, in Arizona; and the proposed Big Bend National Park, in Texas. He is protected in those areas. There is only the single species in this country, the collared peccary. Other forms are found in Mexico and Central America.

Collared peccary

The musk gland is situated mid-dorsally, slightly above and forward of the tail. Its stifling discharge is the animal's first line of defense, for the musk discourages attack while the little pig is making a dash for the shelter and safety of a dense thicket or a hollow log. Should the pursuer be so ravenously hungry that burning eyes and choking throat are not enough to persuade him to give up the chase, he may overtake the fleeing pig, bring him down, and after a desperate struggle, claim the victim for his own. The conqueror has not reckoned too well, however, for the flesh of the pig has now been made so fetid by the excessive discharge of musk that the killer can stomach only a few bites. Then he slinks away through the brush in the general direction of a pond of water.

If the peccary has escaped, he may dodge into a dense thicket that is infested with flies and mosquitoes. His first impulse would be to switch the small tail and drive the pests away. But the movement of that flipping tail might attract attention, and lead an enemy to the hiding place. So the pig keeps his tail very quiet, and discharges more musk, as an insect repellent. Thus the flies and mosquitoes are driven away, yet the pig has made no movement to attract the enemy. The use of musk, down through the years, resulted in less use of the tail. Disuse led to retarded growth and finally atrophy, and so the peccary now has only the remnant of a tail.

The peccaries are sociable only to the extent that they prefer to be with others of their kind. They know, too, that there is power in numbers, so they usually travel in bands, for the common good of the herd. They have a leader in their excursions through the brush; also a watchman, when they retire to a wallow or shelter. The band will scatter, to lose an enemy, but the individuals are adept at reassembling. The jungle is too thick to see through; a call or a squeal would attract enemies, so the peccary again resorts to that musk gland for guidance. He sniffs the wind, searching for that characteristic odor, and at the same time rubs gently against the brush along the trail, leaving a signal that he has passed that way. With all members of the band cooperating, it is not long until family and friends are reunited.

We have been calling the peccary a pig; he does belong to that group of mammals, but he is quite different from his European cousin. If we look at his head we see a very definite pig-like resemblance, but we note one thing that is different from the domesticated hog or even his European wild ancestor. The European wild boar developed an efficient fighting weapon when he managed to get his big upper canine teeth to grow out and up, instead of down. With these tusks he fought his enemies. In the peccary the canine teeth grow down instead of turning up, and are probably far less efficient as fighting tools. The teeth of the peccary are interesting, however, for they tell us that he could never make up his mind what he wanted to eat. His teeth are in no way specialized for any type of food. He can eat roots, plants, berries, acorns, carrion, or flesh, pretty much as the notion strikes him.

The peccary has a slightly complex stomach. There must have been a time long ago when he decided that his food was to be largely bulky and fibrous plant material; that he would have to spend so much time gathering it that he would not have time to chew it on the "spot", but would gather it, store it, and then chew it at his leisure, a characteristic which we find among the ruminants. In other words the peccary had all good intentions of becoming a "cud-chewing pig", but apparently he was not quite persistent enough, for although the stomach is somewhat partitioned off and complex, the idea was not carried out to completion.

Now let us return to external characteristics. If we look at his feet and toes we see that here was another situation that had his mind in a whirl. He was so perplexed by this problem that he chose differently fore and aft, for there are four toes on his front feet but only three for his hind feet. There is little doubt but that his early ancestors had the original five digits, and that those ancestors had all intentions of becoming and remaining even-toed ungulates. Just what quirk of nature caused them to discard one on each hind foot is another one of the interesting facts in the story of this little pig.

North America is often referred to as the cradle of mammalian development, and it seems that the peccaries also got their start here in the new world. The first forms we know anything about were small, probably not much larger than a small dog. This primitive peccary lived in competition with the 5-toed horse, the primitive rhinoceros, and the huge carrion-eater of the early Eocene. Their fossil bones are found associated in the badlands (Eocene) in Wyoming and northern Utah. Next, the peccary lived in competition with the 3-toed horse, the small active camel, the primitive dog, and early sabre-toothed cat of the Oligocene. Their bones are found associated with such forms in the Oligocene badlands of Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

One can imagine the early sabre-toothed cats chasing the early pigs, but having to give up the chase when overcome with the stifling musk. Down through the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene the peccary in turn competed with the rhinoceros, camel, dog, sabre-toothed cat, elephant, and other like forms. When we get to the most recent time, the very present, we find that only the peccary remains of this vast assemblage of varied mammalian forms.

We are struck with the fact that our little native wild pig has come down through the ages and survived, while most of his competitors have fallen by the wayside. Mother Nature certainly did quite well with her problem child, but the road was not easy nor were the problems solved without a struggle. Today, however, our little wild pig is facing his greatest struggle. The most baffling competitor of all time has put in his appearance. That competitor is man, Mother Nature works too slowly to compete with man, so unless something is done very quickly, the little pig will soon cease to exist, except in the Texas Big Bend and the National Park Service areas, where he is protected.

If man killed solely for the purpose of securing food, perhaps that dorsal musk gland would solve the problem. If the flesh was of no value for food, there would be less desire for the kill, but many men kill wantonly. Man also kills quickly, and some have learned to remove the gland immediately after the kill to prevent the flesh from becoming undesirable as food. Man also has introduced other forms of animal life which are actively competing for food, and as a result, the little native wild pig is forced to retreat to the most inaccessible places. According to a recent wildlife survey there still exists in Arizona some 14,000 individuals but these are scattered in five small isolated regions. One area in New Mexico contains some 400 of these animals. Texas has the largest number, some 35,000 individuals divided between two areas.

In food and range habits the existing peccaries are quite adaptable, being found not only in same marshy swamp thickets of Texas but also in the rocky and cavernous canyons of New Mexico, and in the dense cactus and chaparral of southern Arizona. In the matter of young they differ from other members of the pig family for they produce but two, sometimes only one, each year.

Many are the stories about the fighting abilities of these little pigs. Perhaps in the early days of the white man in this country, and before the peccaries had been so reduced in numbers, a large band might have turned upon a suspected enemy and either "ripped him to pieces" or forced him up a tree. But with the advent of the gun, even these little wild pigs were intelligent enough to associate the crack of the rifle and the impact of the bullet. As a result they have become more shy and retreating. Their size surely would not make them a very formidable enemy, for they range from 35 to 40 inches in length, and do not weigh more than 40 to 60 pounds.

Mother Nature did quite well by her little pig. Her experiments on his anatomy, in stomach, teeth, tail, toes, and musk gland, were all valiant attempts to maintain his race. In this matter we have no such powers. We can not get him to grow a bullet-proof armor, to change his color so as to be less conspicuous, to take a new trail each time he forages through the brush, or to become solitary instead of social. Our problem is to make every effort to eliminate those factors which are rapidly putting those little pigs in the class of vanishing first Americans.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005