Wild Peccaries of Mexico, Central, and South America

Screen Shot 2018-12-28 at 8.35.28 AMBy Julie Etra

The peccary, also known as javelina, jabelina, and jabalí in Spanish, is a medium-sized hoofed mammal resembling a pig, but in fact is no longer related (they separated maybe 40 million years ago) to domesticated or European pigs gone wild, like the razorbacks hunted across the southern United States. Members of Tayassuidae family, peccaries range from the southwestern United States down through Mexico to Central and northern South America.  They are usually about 2 – 4 feet (90 – 130 cm) long, and, when full-grown, can weigh from 45 – 90 (20 – 40 kg) pounds. Their hooves, depending on species, can have more than two toes, although the middle two digits are always used for walking.  They have coarse hair or bristles and tusk-like canine teeth that they can rub together to make a chattering sound that warns off predators – jungle cats, boa constrictors, and humans among them. 

The collared peccary (Pecari tajacu) is the more common species in the southwestern US, while the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) is found in rainforests of Central and South America.  The Chacoan peccary (Catgonus wagneri) ranges through Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina, preferring dry shrub habitats; there may also be a “giant peccary” (Pecari maximus) in northern Bolivia and the Brazilian Amazon, but scientists have yet to agree on whether, aside from its size, it’s really different from the collared peccary.  

Ever adaptable, the white-lipped peccary also ranges through a variety of habitats – semi-tropical deciduous forests, rain forests, grasslands, mangrove, cerrado (tropical savannah of Brazil) and dry areas with xerophytic plants (e.g., cactus) like the selva seca (dry jungle) of the Oaxacan coast.  Tracks of the collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu) have been found on the Puerto Escondido campus of the Universidad del Mar, and the animals themselves have been spotted on the trail to Playa Cacaluta.  Cornelio Ramos, Huatulco’s well-known bird guide, has also seen them in the forests around Copalita. They are considered rare and endangered. In some countries they are even kept as pets, as per pot-bellied pigs, although I don’t know anyone who has tried this. 

Peccaries are omnivorous.  Their preferred diet includes roots, seeds, and fruits, especially cactus fruits, but they will eat bugs, grubs, and small animals.  They are diurnal (active by day), social animals, and cover a lot of ground, usually foraging in a line through the forest.  Like pigs, peccaries use their snouts to ‘root’ for vegetation, insects, etc., and again like pigs, they like to wallow in the mud to cool off, get rid of parasites, and apparently just to have fun.   The females bear one or two young, and gestation is 4-5 months. They are purported to be aggressive, but there is little evidence to support this claim.

Although they are common in South America today, they haven’t been there for very long, geologially speaking.   It was “only” 3 million years ago that the Isthmus of Panama was formed as ocean currents piled up sediment around the mountains that rose as the edges of the Nazca, Panama, and Caribbean plates came into contact.  As soon as there was enough solid ground, many North American mammals, including peccaries, llamas, and tapirs, entered South America, while a few South American species, such as the ground sloths and opossums, migrated north.

White-lipped peccaries have been in sharp decline over the last 50 years; research in Brazil and Costa Rica has identified a habitat preference for humid tropical forest.  A fairly recent study (2009) was conducted in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (CBR) in the Yucatán, which includes the largest area of intact, seasonally-dry tropical forest habitat in Mexico, and is one of few remaining areas where white-lipped peccaries persist in the northern portion of their historic range. Researchers recorded the behavior of four peccary herds for over 18 months, and concluded that during the dry season, the peccaries stayed within range of the few available water sources, but during the rainy season they ranged widely to seek out food.  Basically, they much prefer to be near ponds, non-decidious forests, or low flooded forests (e.g., mangrove stands), and least prefer the selva seca.  

I’ll be back out in the selva seca at Cacaluta – where there are wetlands – sometime soon with Cornelio, and if we indeed see the jabalí, we will try to verify the species. His cousin, Irais Ramos, identified the species as the white-lipped. If that is the case, some publications will require updating.