Nature Notes: Javelinas – Pig-Like Icons of the West Texas Borderlands

They’re small, but they aren’t dainty. They’re not exactly pretty. And they definitely stink.

The javelina is the New World answer to the pig. And it’s one of the distinctive creatures of the American Southwest.

Rugged, wary but sociable with its own kind, the javelina is a true West Texas native.

Javelinas aren’t pigs – they’re peccaries. Distant relatives of Old World hogs and boars, and of hippos, peccaries evolved in the Americas. They’re a distinct family of hoofed mammals.

Edna Flores is a ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Visitors often report baffling encounters with wild, piglike creatures. It’s part of Flores’ job to set them straight.

“A lot of times people say, ‘I’ve seen a wild pig! I’ve seen a wild pig!’” Flores said. “It does have the same snout, the same disc on its nose made out of cartilage, but if you’re paying attention, you can see that they’re not domesticated pigs.”

Feral hogs have made their way to West Texas. But javelinas are clearly different. While both walk on their two front toes, pigs have four toes and javelinas have three. A pig’s tails is long and hairy – the javelina’s tiny tail can barely be distinguished from its rump.

And javelinas are small and lean – standing 2 feet high, and rarely weighing more than 60 pounds.

  Peccaries originated in South and Central America. The species that’s found in the U.S. – from the southern Llano Estacado and Trans-Pecos to the Arizona borderlands – is called the collared peccary.

“The collared peccary, like its name, does have a collar around its neck,” Flores said. “It’s a white collar. It’s not subtle – it’s very obvious to the eye.”

If there’s one feature of the javelina that’s most likely to give a person pause, it’s the tusk. Here, too, the peccary is distinct from the pig.

“If you look at a wild hog or boar, their teeth will actually curl into their head,” Flores said, “whereas javelinas, they’ll usually just go straight up.”

Javelinas are herd animals. Herd sizes can range from 8 to 25. In West Texas, they typically number 10 to 15 members. The herd huddles together for warmth in cold weather. And – there’s safety in numbers.

They’ve been called “musk hogs” and “skunk pigs.” Javelinas have scent glands behind their necks and above their noses. It’s an arresting and unmistakable odor, and it’s critical to the animal’s survival and sociability.

When threatened, javelinas emit a musky blast. Like a skunk’s spray, the musk can persuade a potential predator – a coyote, mountain lion or bobcat – to seek its meal elsewhere.

Javelinas also use musk to mark and identify their young, called “reds,” because of the color of their fur. And musk is used to mark herd territories, which can range from 70 to 700 acres.

Javelinas generally feed in the day, and shelter in a cave, beneath a rock overhang or in brushy draw at night. They’re omnivores. They use their tusks to root for tubers. And while plants are the mainstay, javelinas will also dine on grubs, lizards and small rodents. They’re undeterred by thorny vegetation.

“They usually consume a large amount of prickly pear,” Flores said, “which explains why when you hike along some of the trails that are close to the water, you’ll see a big chunk taken out of a prickly pear. Once the prickly pear put out their fruit in the summer, those tunas, that’s a lot of their diet during the summer months.”

Like many desert dwellers, javelinas can get much of the water they need from the plants they eat. But they do like to drink, and arroyos and riparian areas are favored habitats.

Flores says that the most common question about javelinas is whether they’re dangerous. Larger peccary species have attacked humans in Latin America, and, in West Texas, javelinas have scrapped with pets. But javelinas pose almost no risk to humans. Faced with a person, javelinas will generally flee. And don’t be deceived by their squat legs – they can reach speeds of more than 20 miles per hour.

Javelina stuffed animals are a best seller at the Guadalupe park’s gift shop, Flores said. Javelinas may be short on elegance and grace, but their quirky charisma exerts an effect. For many, they’re a borderlands icon.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.