Peccaries are wild pigs (order Artiodactyla, family Tayassuidae) of the New World which are relatives of the wild pigs of the Old World. Peccaries are the only pig-like mammals native to the New World, all other pigs in North and South America are formerly domestic animals that have escaped and become feral. Taxonomists recognize three species of peccaries: the collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu ) of the southwestern United States and Mexico; the white-lipped peccary (T. pecari ), which inhabits plains, forests, valleys, and deserts throughout most of northern South America; and the tagua or Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri ), which was thought to be extinct, but living specimens were found in 1975 in the arid Gran Chaco region of South America in Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil.
Peccaries are even-toed hoofed animals that are sometimes called javelinas (javelins) because their tusks look like javelins or spears. Peccaries have a musk gland on the back near the rump that gives off a very powerful odor, resulting in the alternate common name of musk hog.
The Chacoan peccary is the largest species, reaching as much as 80 lb (36 kg) and a shoulder height of about 43 in (1 m), almost twice the size of the collared peccary. It has a large head that seems out of proportion to its body. The white-lipped peccary’s stiff hair is dark reddish brown and the white on it is actually on the sides on its jaws, not on its lips. It is about 3 ft (1 m) long and weighs about 66 lb (30 kg). The collared peccary is grizzled gray with a whitish, collar-shaped stripe of fur on the neck. Adults have a faint black stripe on their backs, which is more visible in young animals. The males and females of all species are the same size.
From the side, a peccary’s head looks triangular with a round, flat snout making one corner of the triangle. The snout is used for rooting out their food of bulbs and tender shoots as well as prickly pear cactus, a particular favorite. The long legs have tiny, hoofed feet with four toes on the front and three on the back. Peccaries do not run much except when in danger, and even walking is kept at a minimum, with the animals preferring a quiet life of lazing during the day and leisurely feeding at twilight and dawn.
Peccaries live in groups that may number more than 100 animals and depend on the group for defense.
The collared peccary tends to live in smaller groups, usually numbering fewer than 10 members. A closely packed group of angry, squealing animals with large, jutting canine teethlike tusks does not present an inviting target for jaguars and other big cats. As the group moves, the members mark their territory with their musk glands.
Males and females in the group mate at any time, but the young, usually twins, are generally born in summer after a gestation period that lasts about 115 days for the collared peccary and up to 160 days for the white-lipped peccary. The newborn peccaries can move almost immediately, and they will stay with the mother for several months.
Peccaries serve as a tasty food source for the people who live near them. In some parts of the United States, the collared peccary has come to be regarded as a game animal, and is the target of organized hunting parties. If hounded by hunters, peccaries are apt to turn and try to attack. Hunting and loss of habitat has brought the numbers of these New World pigs down to very low levels, and these animals are now protected in a number of reserves and parks throughout South and Central America. The Chacoan peccary considered endangered by the IUCN and other conservation organizations.
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Jean F. Blashfield