Javalina are not pigs as most people think of them in the traditional sense. According to Wikipedia they are a peccary.
“A peccary is a medium-sized animal, with a strong resemblance to pigs. Like pigs, it has a snout ending in a cartilagenous disc, and eyes that are small relative to its head. Also like pigs, it uses only the middle two digits for walking, although, unlike pigs, the other toes may be altogether absent. Its stomach is non-ruminating, although it has three chambers, and is more complex than those of pigs.“
I wasn’t sure what the ruminating meant, so I followed the link to find out. It’s not especially attractive, as it involves chewing their food more than once, AFTER it has already been swallowed! EWWW! But, it also means the food goes to a special stomach designed for digesting nutrients by way of fermentation – sort of like a personal brewery, which is kind of cool.
Growing up in Tucson you become familiar with Javalinas pretty quickly. Usually by smelling them, because another thing they have that pigs do not, is a scent gland at the top of their rump that emits a strong musky odor. They use this to mark their territory, ward off predators, and mark members of their herd; because they are social animals and travel in groups anywhere from three to 12 on average.
Throughout my life I have had many different experiences with these spunky animals. My dad hunts Javalina, which is something you can do in Arizona, when they are in season and if you are drawn from a lottery for a license to do so. Thus, my earliest memory of Javalina is of how tasty it is. Some folks may balk at the idea, but when it comes to dining it is pretty much the same as ham or sausage. Javalina sausage is really, really, good. It’s spicy and a little bit more gamey than pig and makes a great addition to a Sonoran style breakfast with salsa and eggs. Since Javalina are native to South America, Mexico, and the Sonoran Desert it is truly a unique culinary experience to Southern Arizona. When visiting you should definitely try some!
One of my other memories of this animal is of finding a perfectly in-tact jawbone of one while hiking. It was very fascinating to see the skeletal structure of an animal out in the wild where it had ostensibly perished. If you are interested by ecology and biology than you will likely find a wealth of opportunity to encounter all kinds of ‘naturalist’ discoveries, including Javalina tracks, evidence of dens and foraging, and sometimes a small herd itself; while trekking through our state parks and mountains.
If you do happen upon an actual herd you should use caution. Although Javalinas can look very cute and non-threatening, they are like any other wild animal and have the potential to be dangerous. Their front tusks are used for digging and rooting out food and are a very powerful weapon against predators.
(Javalina, Looking Cute) (Don’t try to confront a Javalina)
My most recent experience with these creatures was a pretty awesome one at the Sonoran Desert Museum. I went to the museum with family over the Thanksgiving weekend and there we were able to get a close up look at the museum’s resident herd.
The museum features a 1.5 mile trail that leads you out into the open desert as one of their exhibits. This trail routes over and through a Javalina ‘run’, which is basically a natural wash that provides shelter, food, and moisture for the Javalina. The run is not man made and is the natural environment of the Javalina. The only signs of intervention are some chicken wire fencing here and there that are placed to help ‘guide’ the animals into a particular path that allows visitors the best chance of seeing them, but the path is pretty much what the Javalina would instinctively choose anyway. It is really an excellent exhibit that allows visitors to observe these animals in a way that is safe, but also very natural.
I was there with my Dad, Step mom, and Step sister and we were taking our time to meander through the trail and just take in the beauty of the desert (the trail also sits on a mountain foothill that offers breathtaking views, by the way) when my Step mom noticed a moving shadow.
She pointed it out to my dad, who with his hunting and hiking experience, was able to confirm right away that it was indeed a Javalina. We then watched it as it moved down the wash and came closer to us. It moved right underneath the bridge we were standing on and we were able to see it for several minutes up close as it foraged a bit in the wash and investigated some rock piles and vegetation right below our feet!
Having the opportunity to see an animal that you will never see in any other part of the country reminded me of how fortunate we are in Tucson to have such a unique ecosystem. The Sonoran desert is home to thousands of unique species, including birds, reptiles, mammals, and insects.
The Sonoran Desert Museum is an excellent place to learn and interact with these animals and we will be discussing the museum’s offerings in an upcoming post, so stay tuned.
In the mean time, remember, when you get back home don’t tell people you had a chance to see ‘a funny looking pig’, it hurts the Javalina’s feelings!
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