I hadn’t planned on writing about Javelinas. Not having grown up around them or even ever seeing one, I certainly wasn’t poised to share much. But I was recently invited to Arizona by my buddy Preston Taylor to visit him during his first Javelina hunt. Preston’s been trying to get me and others to join him for a Javelina hunt for years and he finally decided to go without any of his normal hunting mates. Well, that’s only partly true because his actual mate and wife, the lovely Heather Taylor joined him. Not as a bystander. Heather picked up her own bow and went hunting with Preston.
Preston signed up to go on a hosted hunt put on by the Professional Bowhunter Society to finally follow through on his desire, nay, his need to hunt Javelina. The organization sets up member hunts around the country, usually hosted by a member who has access or knowledge of a place and arranges to be available as an unofficial guide/host. It could be a bear hunt in Alaska, turkey hunting in Virginia, or whitetail deer hunting in Ohio. In this case, it was a Peccary hunt in south eastern Arizona and hosted by an easy to be around, salt of the earth type who comfortably filled the role of hunt host both for his inclusive attitude, as well as his experience bowhunting for these interesting animals.
Rick invited a group of archers to one of his hunting areas knowing that members of the PBS would all be conscientious hunters who would treat the place and the animals with respect. They’d each go their own way into the desert wilderness (or with a hunting partner) and try to locate, stalk, and hunt the elusive, hardscrabble Javelina who makes their living in an extremely harsh environment.
Not far from the famed Apache war chief Cochise’s stronghold just north of the rocky and scrubby Dragoon mountains, right in the heart of Apacheria, I made my way to the PBS hunt camp. I just happened to be passing through the area and arranged to stop in and camp with my travel mates to visit with Preston and Heather for an evening. Little did I know, that my interest would instantaneously be piqued by the ubiquitous desert dwelling Collared Peccary.
The collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), or javelina as it’s known, looks at a distance like a small wild hog. Built similarly with hog-like features, this desert native is quite unique in its adaptations, both physically and behaviorally. It’s a small animal, as are many of the desert creatures, and like it’s cousin the feral hog, has a large flat snout that it uses for rooting and finding food. Many desert plants, like animals, keep a big part of their physical selves underground. It’s an ingenious survival strategy where surface water is scarce and daytime temperatures can be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and javelinas are well adapted to finding and digging these tuber-like plants from deep underground.
In a landscape where everything seems scratchy, sharp, pokey, thorny and rough, the javelina fits right in. In fact the one that Preston shot with his hand carved self made longbow had long hair that felt almost quill like and teeth that were keen, sharp and very threatening looking. Her hide was tough and thick and she had long eyelashes and facial whiskers that would be very helpful in a thorny environment, allowing her to feel the interminable sharps in the dark before her eyes got pierced. She had no tail but at the top of her rump there was a gland, and when threatened the hairs around the gland stood on end appearing like the ‘hackles’ on a dogs neck. I wasn’t able to get a good whiff, but I’m guessing the odors from this rump gland are why one name for javelina is skunk pig. The hair on the neck also stands on end creating a ‘hackles up’ appearance on these little hog cousins.
The tayassu was assumed to have split off from suids long ago in evolutionary time, but more recent DNA evidence is pointing to a parallel evolution. It turns out tayassu evolved in the Americas. Even more interesting to find in my research, they evolved in North America and migrated south, down the Panamanian land bridge (probably) as opposed to a south to north assumed(mine) migration. This is a N.A. native, and extinct species of peccary have been found all the way north across the N.A. continent to the Yukon territory. Fossil records show that the N.A. plains north used to be a drier, more arid climate, perfect for the pecarry of the day.
The collared peccary today lives across the southwest from Texas to Arizona. I couldn’t figure why there weren’t any javelinas in California, until I dug into it a bit and even still, I’m not sure. The best explanation I can find is that the Colorado Desert in southeastern Cali is the driest, hottest, most inhospitable and arid part of the great North American desert possibly being the deterrent keeping javelinas from inhabiting our state. Where food is scarce and water even more so, it seems the Colorado Desert keeps the peccary out. This is subject to change in the not too distant future though. West of this arid desert is great peccary habitat, and the work of humans making roads, irrigation ditches, green grassy yards, golf courses, and croplands to/in and through the Colorado might give this adaptive animal the foothold it needs to populate our state. We’ll see.
What I also found fascinating, was their physiological and behavioral adaptations to the desert. For one, they walk everywhere. It was a couple days of observing them before I realized that the javelinas were walking instead of trotting! This may not at first make the alarm bells go off for the reader, but when I noticed it, bells went off for me. In the extreme dry heat of the desert, walking makes much more sense than trotting as far as generating heat and I noticed that besides running from immediate danger, these hog like creatures do a slow walk wherever they go. Even when running from danger, they don’t run far and rely on a combination of quick initial movement and even quicker aggression and posturing to defend themselves. Then they just walk off seemingly calm as a cucumber.
In hotter months, javelinas will move their foraging and drinking to the night time, staying in shade during the day to remain cool. They will also wallow in water if it’s available to cool off and I’ve read that they can even use dust bathing to cool down. Also, the black tips of their hair break off in the summer and the lighter hair can and does reflect some heat and cut down on radiation of heat in the hair and close to the body, helping to keep the animal a bit cooler. Also, during dehydration, peccaries can reduce evaporative and urinary water losses by up to 80% lowering their water needs.
Scientists are unsure of how much straight water a javelina needs. It’s not a lot and studies have shown that they “need very little” if they have succulents in their diet and that they’ve “been known to go 6 days without a drink”.
In the winter, the black tips grow back on the hair and this helps in absorbing heat. Also, their bodies will operate at a higher core temperature increasing their need for food intake, and this is reflected in how much they eat. Subtle but interesting adaptations to life in an extreme place.
Here was another thing I enjoyed learning. As such a small animal, they’d need some adaptation to protect themselves from the potential predators that they’d encounter in the south west. From mountain lion, to coyote, to Mexican grey wolf and jaguar, there’s plenty for the peccary to have to look out for. And defend against. One way this is done is by ‘strength in numbers’. Packs of up to 50+ Javelinas is not unheard of and with their aggressive natures, can be an extremely formidable foe. I’ve obviously never witnessed it myself, but I can easily envision these animals fending off about any predator in the right situation.
I’m going to go out on a limb here as I’m inclined to sometimes do and say that I’d bet that javelinas, in areas where wolves and jaguars and lions are more likely to be sharing habitat with them, would run in the larger packs, also known as squadrons. Besides a stealth attack where a lion quickly caught a small peccary and ran off with it, I could imagine that a squadron could harass a lion enough to drive it off. Also, the peccary, as we know them here in the states, inhabits a landscape of openness and the preferred area of cats is in areas of relatively good cover. Of course these environments and animals overlap which is relationship that’s been going on long before we arrived on the scene.
Preston and Heather had been hunting javelina for almost a week when I arrived with fellow animal trackers Abel and Susan Bean, and after the PBS guys graciously invited us to pitch our tents and prepare ourselves for a feast, began telling us about their hunts and newfound respect and admiration for these variable animals. Pres had killed the one and Heather had been attempting to get one herself, but her future farmer childhood had given her a deep love for hogs and everytime she got within the shooting distance of 10-15 yards, she just wanted to watch and appreciate them instead of trying to put an arrow into one. She called them cute which they are, and her and Pres shared their already many behavioral observations with us, and of real interest to me was they way peccaries used facial expression as a visible threat to humans while slowly walking away to avoid them.
Heather said that once the javelina knew there were humans right amongst them, they’d head out but would occasionally turn their heads back and open their mouths widely, showing their fearsome ‘fangs’ in a display. A seemingly obvious aggressive posturing tactic that, in the case of someone pursuing, would certainly be menacing in appearance.
Javelinas have canines that form large extremely sharp cutters on both their upper and lower jaws and use these effective weapons for defense as well as for fighting amongst themselves. The ones Preston showed me were over an inch long on both the upper and lower and sharp enough to be very dangerous to anyone on the receiving end. Of interest to me is the way they use gaping mouths as posturing which is a very low energy expenditure way of self preservation and protection that certainly works against us humans and probably does the same for other potential predators.
The first thing I usually hear about javelinas is how aggressive and dangerous they are, but upon watching them myself, and talking to others who spend time watching them from a curious mindset, I find that they’re extremely loving and affectionate. Being the social animal that they are, they’ve developed lots of ways to maintain connection and close quarters that are subtle and easy to miss if we’re seeing them as dangerous and troublesome. A majority of the websites about javelinas, including those of the Arizona Game and Fish, focus a lot on the peccary as a nuisance. It never ceases to amaze me that we can go out into the desert, build a house and plant a lawn, and then call the native species a nuisance when they come eat the fresh green grass in our yards. It’s the same mindset that almost led to the complete eradication (genocide) of the natives of this land. “They’re in the way of progress (modern civilized perspective) and need to either join us or be removed.”
While in the Gila wilderness, I was talking to some locals about wildlife. Good salt of the earth country people who’d give you the shirt off their back and wave at literally every car that drives by. When I brought up the Mexican grey wolf, their response was usually “oh, we don’t need wolves around here. We have (domestic) animals.” Or, “wolves are the reason our elk numbers are way down.”
Now, I understand the rancher mindset. I grew up in rural California where the answer to any wildlife problem was usually to kill it, but we’re talking about a native species that was rescued from the brink of extinction and is still teetering there(the wolf). An animal that we can live with and have for tens of thousands of years until the ‘new’ european mindset towards any threat to ‘our’ environment came along. With our overpopulation of the country, nay the world, we’ve got to come up with a new mindset or we won't have wildlife left for the future generations to enjoy. And that’s still an ego-centric perspective. Who are we to decide the fate of a whole species according to our ideas of what we will want to enjoy in the supposed future? What about what’s natural? What about what’s good for the environmental future? We’re just finally (scientifically) becoming aware of how important apex predators are on the landscape, and we’re just scratching the surface of understanding the complexity of life on this planet. Anyhow…….
Wolves and elk and mountain lions and javelinas have been coexisting for eons and it’s only in recent years that humans with our big brains have altered the environment enough that species are going extinct at an alarming rate due to habitat loss. Or perhaps it’s a natural mass extinction. I don’t know and that’s a philosophical discussion way too big for me here and not one I’m willing to try to tackle anyhow. I have my biases for sure. But it’s my hope that the grandchildren can go to the desert someday and find a mexican grey wolf track like me and my tracking friends were able to do recently.
My friend Abel, of the Teaching Drum Outdoor School, had been to the great state of Texas recently and got to go out with a colleague there, Dave Scott of Earth Native Wilderness School. They were animal tracking in Big Bend National Park and while camping there, had javelinas come right through their camp. Abel told me the story and what struck him, besides the fact that the peccaries seemed unafraid, was how the babies stayed right with their mother. He noticed that they were literally walking under her a lot of the time and she seemed ever mindful of them and he said it was sweet.
I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time looking at this myself, but on our recent trip, I saw a mother and a young and that’s exactly how they moved. At one point, they smelled me and headed directly away, and the young javelina was right with her momma the whole time. Almost never losing physical contact. The implication of this didn’t lose its relevance on me. I remember hearing about how human babies in orphanages (somewhere in europe) many years ago would literally die if they didn’t have physical contact and how important it was for the nurses to hold all of them. This rings true for me and is consistent with my observations of all social animals. There’s lots of physical contact. Especially when there’s young involved. From wolves to humans to feral hogs to javelinas, and on and on.
Abels, Prestons and Heathers observations of javelina social dynamics, affection, feelings and intimacy are congruent with my own observations, and while some might think of these perspectives as kind of “hippy”, or “unscientific” they all come from totally different backgrounds and are experientially developed viewpoints built on time, observation and openness of mind, as well as varied perspective. In my research, I found that scientists studying javelinas found that putting them in individual pens alone caused all kinds of problems for the animals and for the scientists. Social animals just don’t do well alone. They actually need other animals of their species, and in some cases, need a minimum amount of other animals to interact with to be able to function healthily.
Javelinas have a rich social scent marking culture. I don’t know much about it, but I know they scent mark lots of items on the landscape, notably rocks and trees. They also mark each other. I’ve watched them stand head to rump and simultaneously rub their heads on each other's rump glands, ostensibly keeping easily identifiable to each other as well as to other packs.
Upon arriving at the PBS sponsored hunt, Preston immediately began cooking us a lunch of, you guessed it, javelina. The meat looked and smelled just about exactly like wild hog meat and I was anxious to taste this distant desert relative of the hog. At this point, I hadn’t done much research on these animals, and knew nothing of how most folks won't eat one. I’ve since heard that a lot of guys shoot them and just throw them away. This boggles my mind, as I was raised to “eat what you kill”, and oh was I glad to eat my first bite of peccary. Prestons meat cooking culinary complexity consisted of zero spice, fried in some grease so as not to bastardize the subtle flavor of this delicious desert animal. I described it as tender/tough if there’s such a thing, and that is how it seemed to me. When I bit into it, it was deliciously tender, and yet it took a little pleasant chewing to break it down. It would have been hard for anyone to tell that it wasn’t pork and could easily pass as such. Pres also slow cooked a bunch of the meat, and later that night we enjoyed perfectly pulled-porkish javelina that was a blessing to any tongue, along with salad and chili pitched in by other generous members of the Professional Bowhunters Society hunters.
The liver Preston cooked up for me and him and our smaller group. Many folks won’t eat liver, but we are lovers of the rich organ meats and again, I was not disappointed. This liver had no gall bladder to remove and lightly cooked tasted mild, rich and delicious. A real treat in the cold high desert.
A couple of things:
-Pres cooked up the first meat for us and it was a bit pink. Him being an extremely well informed hunter, and us being usual eaters of many things that other folks don’t eat, I wasn’t worried about the javelina being undercooked as I would be about bear, hog or raccoon. Javelinas are not omnivorous like the feral hog and mainly eat plant foods and their meat has been extensively looked at and they don’t carry trichinosis.
-Because of this, they don’t need the gall-bladder as do the hog and bear to break down the meat and fat of their ‘prey’. Be it killed themselves, or scavenged.
Javelinas are quite unique in their intestinal tract. Called a pseudo-ruminant, they have a four chambered stomach that is different from the four chambered stomach of true ruminants. They don’t ‘chew their cud’ like a true ruminant but can digest fiber and cellulose with an efficiency somewhere between a mono-gastric and a ruminant animal. Most of the fermenting happens in the largest part of their stomach known as the forestomach. Their four chambered stomachs are not always four. Studies have shown that their stomach chambers can be closed off either at will, or unconsciously and can at times be open between chambers. They also have an appendix. Very few kinds of animals have appendixes with primates being one. Neither hogs nor ruminant animals do.
The diet of the javelina is what we’d consider fairly poor. For example, prickly pear cactus leaves are 80 percent water suggesting that these animals would have to eat a lot of this food to extract the necessary caloric and nutritional content needed. It’s also a rough food to be eating. For instance the fruits of the cactus are covered in both small and big thorns. Thousands of them, and yet, javelinas have seemingly no problem eating this food and while I’ve not been able to inspect one myself, the inside of their mouths must have some tough adaptations to be able to do this. As well, after consuming a bunch of prickly pear thorns and hairlike stickers, the stomachs of the javelinas seem not to be affected negatively. Also, the way the upper and lower blade like incisors lock in, javelinas don’t have a huge ability to grind their teeth from side to side so have to rely on their teeth just smashing their food and the bacteria in their guts to help them break these foods down. And the foods they eat sure seem rough.
A ruminant uses fermentation to not only break down foods, but to create foods. Byproducts of the fermentation of plant materials can be what is ingested and the bacteria is what makes this happen. Ruminants rely on short chain fatty acids for their energy needs while monogastric stomach animals rely largely on glucose for energy. Also, ruminants rely on regurgitation to be able to re-grind their foods when back in a safe location and then send it back down to the bacteria to be further broken down. Javelinas are unable to regurgitate so their bacterial breakdowns are different as are their foods, which is why the term pseudo ruminant is used for them.
Turns out, peccaries are perfectly suited for life in the desert southwest. Imagine that.
We saw peccary tracks from elevations of around 4000 feet (I’m sure they go much lower), up to almost 8000 feet, even though a google search claims they live from 1000-5000 feet in elevation. From a very open sonoran type desert to the forested pinyon-juniper slopes. From the high rocky rim to the sandy desert. We saw tracks in deep dark canyons dominated by larger pinyon pine and ponderosa and open river valleys of willow and cottonwood.
While their home ranges are relatively small (usually less than a mile and a half square) the javelinas geographical range stretches from the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona through central America and south America to Argentina. South of the border, the collared peccary shares habitat with two other species, the White-Lipped and the Chacaon. Incredibly a fourth species was discovered and listed in 2007! It’s a large, jungle living species that lives in pairs called the Giant Peccary. Of course native people in Brazil have known about and hunted this species for probably eons. Interestingly the native Brazilian name for them translates as: “large peccary that lives in pairs”.
One really unusual thing about javelinas is their back feet. While the fronts look an awful lot like a tiny hog track, both with rounded cloven hooves and dewclaws, their back feet have normal although small hog like hooves, they only have one dewclaw on their rear foot. Their bones of the wrist are fused into one and there’s just the single inner dewclaw on each hind hoof. I have no idea how this adaptation came about and can’t even imagine why, but they’re all like that.
Always fascinated with the hows, discovering new (to me) animals in a new environment is one of my great joys and the javelina/desert environment was far from disappointing in this respect. The javelina, where present, left pervasive feeding sign that was easy to discover and interpret and in a short time became obvious to me and my compadres. In some cases it was shocking how big and deep these foraging digs were and in one case, I climbed into one excavation to have my picture taken, so as to show the size. Peccary feeding sign is quite prevalent and is usually either digging, rooting or browsing and a little time spent in javelina country will quickly pay off in recognition. As always in a new environment, I didn’t spend near enough time to uncover some of the mysteries there, but was able to see and learn quite a bit.
One thing I discovered that I’m uncertain of, is that it seemed like the peccaries were digging down next to large cottonwoods in the river flats. Right down along the bark searching for something. While I couldn’t find any sign of a plant food being foraged there, I’m assuming that they were digging out some insect or insect larvae. My friend and colleague Tamarack Song suggested that it could be a behavior correlated with digging up some kind of fungus that’s associated with the root of the cottonwood tree and it’s another theory that makes a lot of sense to me. A mystery like many, many others that’ll maybe be solved another time.
I’m so unqualified to write about tracking of the peccary that I hesitated to do so, but, my recent experience was so rich with their tracks and sign that I thought I’d share some of what I saw, both mysteries and stories.
If you saw the tracks of a javelina and there was nothing in the picture to show relative size, you’d be hard pressed to tell if they were feral hog(ave. Size around 130lbs) or javelina(ave. Size around 45lbs). They look that similar (besides the size). But if you were to look closer, there are some things that stand out differently. I already mentioned that javelinas walk everywhere and this is reflected in their footprints. It’s hard to describe how one track can seemingly have more energy than another, and the best we can do is talk about characteristics that are easily noticeable and then imagine and describe what could make those characteristics happen. For instance, an energetic track will have more disturbance than a more calm track. It may be deeper into the soil. It may have dirt sprayed around the track from the tiny explosion of the foot impacting the dirt. The tracks might be farther apart indicating that the animal was perhaps trotting instead of walking. In these ways, we can infer energetics as well as interpretations.
This interpretation for me is part of the fun of tracking. It’s how I come up with the stories and hypotheses that enriches my experience and continues to bring home that I'm an animal too. I respond with feelings to stimuli just like my animal kin. And I find that as I get older, stories, connections, and relationships are what excite me
So, javelina tracks are like miniature hog tracks who walk instead of trot. The average stride from one side of the body to the other was a mere 10-12 inches with the track sizes about the size of the end of my thumb from last knuckle to nail (about an inch).
Of special interest to me, these animals have only the one dewclaw on the inner hind foot. This isn’t really significant for tracking as the dew claws on javelina rarely show, but of interest because it’s a unique adaptation that I’ve never heard of in any animal.
Because of their small home range, when we found javelina tracks, we usually found lots of them. They appear to fan out for feeding and go near single file while traveling. They created and used regular trails that are like cute, tiny little cow trails on the landscape and it was easy to tell that they were javelina trails. Although at times, we saw other animals using them too. Like deer, and coati as well as skunk and mountain lion.
We saw a lot of feeding sign and most of it was either digging, rooting, or browsing. The first two are easy sign to tell from other species, while the latter I’m unable to discern from other animals' feeding sign. Always looking for an excuse to travel back to the desert, I may have just found myself a good one. I wasn’t there long enough to see any remains of mesquite seed feeding sign or acorn, and I know that peccary eat these, but it was the wrong season and the fresh sign was concentrated around the current foods.
Preston and Heather told us about some other sign that we never got to see, but it’s such a testament to the hardiness of the javelina that I thought I’d pass along their observation. They explained how the peccary would eat into the heart area of the yucca plant. This is a basal leafed plant whose leaves all have a stiff thorn. Stiff enough that if you were to fall on one, it could seriously injure you. These spikes combined with leaf edges that can cut you makes this plant one to avoid, but the javelina is able to get to the center of the plant and eat their way to the heart. Think of a dangerous artichoke.
It took me a minute to recognize the javelina rooting sign. I’m used to deep rooting done by wild hogs and javelina rooting is shallow. What I saw looks more like turkey’s scratching in the leaf litter than rooting, but it’s what the peccaries were doing. I don’t know what they were after, but it wasn’t deep. Just under the duff. Perhaps they root deeper, but in this place, this time of year it’s what I saw. Their digging for tubers I already mentioned, deep holes dug with their feet instead of snout and large enough to literally bury themselves in. Very conspicuous sign.
I look forward to being in javelina country again. There’s so much more for me to learn from and about them, but this ‘scratch in the surface’ knowledge that I gained will certainly stay with me.