Meet peccary # 4
Peccaries are predominantly herbivorous, pig-like artiodactyls, restricted today entirely to the Americas, and for reasons that I’ll get to in a minute EVERYONE should be talking about them right now. Living species range in weight from 15-40 kg. They are highly social, living in mixed-sex herds of just a few individuals to several hundred, and females produce just one or two precocial babies that follow the mother soon after birth. Peccaries make an interesting assortment of noises: Collared peccaries Tayassu tajacu produce loud, dog-like barks, and White-lipped peccaries T. pecari scream, bellow and retch when in large groups (small groups tend to be quiet). All species make loud tooth-clacking noises, especially when disturbed.
Peccaries are ecologically flexible, with the three [cough cough] living species being distributed across rainforest, parkland, scrubland, steppe and even desert, and with Collared peccaries in fact occupying all of these habitats. Habits differ according to habitat: rainforest Collared peccaries are diurnal, eat fruit, palm nuts and shrubs, and sleep in burrows, while desert populations are nocturnal, eat mostly cacti, and don’t use burrows. This flexibility is reflecting in their variable tooth anatomy. Judging from fossils the primitive tooth type for peccaries is bunodonty (viz, where each tooth sports multiple low rounded mound-like cusps), but zygodonty (viz, where mound-like cusps are connected by transverse crests) evolved several times. Among living species, the bunodont White-lipped peccary mostly eats nuts while the zygodont Chacoan peccary Catagonus wagneri mostly eats cacti. The Collared peccary includes both bunodont and zygodont individuals across its range, and it seems that desert populations are more zygodont while populations from wetter places tend to be bunodont (Wright 1998). Peccaries are reported to occasionally eat carrion, and they will also eat snails and other invertebrates as well as small vertebrates.
The Collared peccary or Javelina Tayassu tajacu (or Pecari tajacu or Dicotyles tajacu) is the best studied species and is the archetypal peccary, occurring from central Arizona and central Texas south to northern Argentina (though with introduced populations in northern Texas, southern Oklahoma and Cuba). Its nomenclature is a bit confused: some authors use the generic name Dicotyles G. Cuvier, 1817 or Pecari Reichenbach, 1835 for it, but most common is its inclusion within Tayassu Fischer, 1814. Pecari is apparently an objective synonym of Dicotyles and thus not available, and use of Dicotyles therefore depends on whether or not you consider this species distinct enough from the White-lipped peccary to warrant separation. Indeed this confusion is related to a similar controversy over which formal name is used for peccaries: are they Tayassuidae Palmer, 1897 or Dicotylidae Gray, 1868? A few artiodactyl specialists make a point of using the latter name, but the former is more widely used and would easily win in a fight.
Collared peccaries release an odour like cheese or chicken soup, apparently (Emmons 1997). In fact a vernacular name for them in parts of the USA is musk hog, and you are said to smell them before you see them.
The White-lipped peccary, a species that ranges from southern Mexico to Argentina (and has also been introduced to Cuba), is substantially bigger than the Collared peccary. Mostly an animal of forests, it is semi-nomadic. The third species, the Chacoan peccary, Roman-nosed peccary or Tagua, is particularly notable in being both relatively recently discovered in living state, and for being initially named from fossils. I mentioned it before in a post on rodents (New, obscure, and nearly extinct rodents of South America.... and when fossils come alive). The species’ scientific history began in 1930 when, in his lengthy paper on Argentinian fossil peccaries, C. Rusconi named the new subspecies Platygonus carlesi wagneri. By 1948 Rusconi had decided that this form was distinct enough for its own species, P. wagneri.
The story then moves on to 1972 when, while working on a mammal inventory project in the semiarid thorn forest and steppe of the Gran Chaco area of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, Ralph Wetzel and colleagues were surprised to hear from local people of a large peccary – distinct from the Collared and White-lipped – known to them as the tagua, pagua or curé-buro (meaning donkey-pig). Their enquiries eventually led to the successful procurement of tagua skulls, and they clearly represented a third, modern-day peccary species. Yet again we see a case where good, honest, card-carrying zoologists track down an ethnoknown animal with successful results, or in other words an unarguable example of cryptozoological investigation being carried out by people who don’t consider themselves cryptozoologists (for other examples see At last: the Odedi revealed and The interesting and contentious discovery of the kipunji). Rather than being new, it now turned out that the tagua was the same thing as Rusconi’s fossil species Platygonus wagneri: it really was a ‘fossil come to life’. But rather than being a member of Platygonus, a genus known from the Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene of both North and South America, Wetzel concluded that the species was instead better classified within Catagonus, a genus first named by Florentino Ameghino in 1904 for Pleistocene Argentinian fossils (Wetzel 1977a, b, Wetzel et al. 1975) [The adjacent picture shows two captive Chacoan peccaries, borrowed from the Florida Museum of Natural History site. The individual at the rear is scent-marking a fence post with its tail gland].
The Chacoan peccary is specialised for life in semiarid forests and steppes. It browses on ground cacti, is reported to not drink, and is superior in cursorial ability compared to other living species. Its teeth are particularly tall-crowned and it only has two hind toes, not three like other living peccaries. Reports from hunters suggest that it occurs in several parts of Bolivia where its presence has yet to be verified (Mayer & Wetzel 1986) and it turns out that its fur was being used in the manufacture of New York coats and hats long prior to 1972.
But here’s the big news. While the 1975 discovery of the Chacoan peccary was a major zoological discovery – indeed one of the most significant mammalogical discoveries of the 20th century – it seems that history is repeating itself, for there is now a fourth living peccary species: the Giant peccary. As in the case of the Chacoan peccary, this new species appears to have been discovered by listening to local people: in this case the Caboclos people (descendants of rubber collectors) of the Brazilian Amazon. And the discover is Marc van Roosmalen, the Dutch primatologist well known for the many new species of primate he has discovered (about 20) within recent years.
After learning of the fabled new peccary, apparently larger than the documented species, van Roosmalen set off with GEO magazine author and film maker Lothar Frenz and two photographers. And after four days of waiting in a hide they were rewarded with views of a group of four of the animals. Good photos were obtained, and one is reproduced here (at top). The animals look distinct from the other living peccaries – they’re most like Collared peccaries but larger and without the collar, and they’re reported to be even bigger than Chacoan peccaries, hence the name Giant peccary.
German newspapers first reported the successful observation of live Giant peccaries in June 2004, and the news was apparently held back in order to coincide its release with the airing of Frenz’s documentary on the expedition. So far as I can tell however, Karl Shuker was first to break the news as he mentioned it in his 2002 book The New Zoo. Citing personal communication from van Roosmalen, Shuker implied that the Giant peccary had first been encountered in January 2000 (Shuker 2002). It also seems that van Roosmalen and Frenz observed the successful capture and killing of one of the animals: an article in Suiform Soundings* entitled ‘New mammal discovered in South America – and eaten’ (Anon. 2004) stated that ‘Frenz said he and van Roosmalen abstained from trying the meat, but collected some of the remains for a genetic study’. The GEO article includes a photo of hunters with a dead Giant peccary (image below), so maybe this is the same individual that Frenz and van Roosmalen watched being eaten.
* The newsletter of the IUCN/SSC Pigs, Peccaries, and Hippos Specialist Group. Formerly Asian Wild Pig News.
GEO magazine published an article (in German) on the discovery in 2004 (the online version is here), and in December 2005 Suiform Soundings published an English version (Carstens 2005). I don’t know if van Roosmalen is planning to publish a description based only on the meat sample he collected (species have been described from photos and tissue samples before, the best known case being that of the Bulo Burti boubou Laniarius liberatus), or if he’s waiting until better material is obtained, but it seems that we have here the valid discovery of a large, terrestrial mammal. That’s a big deal, though admittedly not as big a deal as so many people – zoologists included – still seem to think. Multiple new large mammals have been described in recent years, and there’s every reason to think that more such discoveries will occur in the future.
But, like I said, say hello to peccary number 4. More to come on peccaries soon. For the latest news on Tetrapod Zoology do go here.
Refs - -
Anon. 2004. New mammal discovered in South America – and eaten. Suiform Soundings 4 (2), 66.
Carstens, P. 2005. Scientist find [sic] new species of large mammal. Suiform Soundings 5 (2), 38-39.
Emmons, L. H. 1999. Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide (Second Edition). University of Chicago Press (Chicago & London).
Mayer, J. J. & Wetzel, R. M. 1986. Catagonus wagneri. Mammalian Species 259, 1-5.
Shuker, K. P. N. 2002. The New Zoo. House of Stratus (Thirsk, North Yorkshire).
Wetzel, R. M. 1977a. The extinction of peccaries and a new case of survival. Annals of the New York Academy of Science 288, 538-544.
- . 1977b. The Chacoan peccary, Catagonus wagneri (Rusconi). Bulletin of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History 3, 1-36.
- ., Dubos, R. E., Martin, R. L. & Myers, P. 1975. Catagonus, an ‘extinct’ peccary alive in Paraguay. Science 189, 379-381.
Wright, D. B. 1998. Tayassuidae. In Janis, C. M., Scott, K. M. & Jacobs, L. L. (eds) Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America. Volume 1: Terrestrial Carnivores, Ungulates, and Ungulatelike Mammals. Cambridge University Press, pp. 389-401.