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Is It a Pig? A Hog? No, It's a Javelina

javelina
The javelina, or collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), is a species of mammal in the family Tayassuidae found in North, Central, and South America. They are commonly referred to as musk hogs, skunk pigs or, in Trinidad, quenks. Daniel Hernanz Ramos/Getty Images

If you don't know what a javelina (pronounced have-a-LEEN-a) is, you shouldn't worry that you're missing out on a big secret. Many folks living outside the southwest U.S. (particularly Arizona and Texas) haven't heard of the animal, either. But the tide might just be turning thanks to a Tucson real estate agent who captured a lone javelina hotfooting it at top speed alongside an apartment complex via cellphone video recently.

The short video went on to propel the speeding creature to social media fame overnight, and the clip has since shown up on Twitter amusingly set to tunes from the "Chariots of Fire" theme song to Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." The dashing javelina even made a cameo appearance in the pages of The New York Times, and was a hot topic on numerous TV news shows as well.

When I first saw a picture of a javelina, I immediately thought it looked like a warthog. And although the animal does tend to resemble the wild pig that I first became familiar with while growing up in Arkansas (it even goes by the nicknames "muskhog" and "skunk pig"), I couldn't have been more wrong. While the two are similar in appearance and habits, turns out they're not related at all. The warthog is indeed a true pig, while the javelina belongs to an entirely separate family of mammals called the "collared peccary," or pecari tajacu.

"Peccaries and pigs are distant relatives, but have many differences," explains Emily Kornmuller, mammalogy and ornithology Keeper at Tucson's Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, in an email interview. "Peccaries are New World animals [animals from the Americas – North, Central and South], don't have a tail, and have a scent gland near the base of their tail that they use to identify each other and mark their territory. Pigs are Old World animals [animals from Africa, Asia and Europe], have a tail and don't have that scent gland."

A few other characteristics differentiating them from pigs, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department: Javelinas are smaller (typically about 2 feet [0.6 meters] tall, and weigh between 35 to 55 pounds [15 to 25 kilograms]), have an unnoticeable tail and only one dew claw on the hind foot. They also sport a coarse, grizzled grayish coat with a white band of hair around the shoulder or "collar" (hence the name collared peccary), and are more social or herd-like animals.

Much like pigs, however, they apparently do have cute little snouts. "We'll 'boop the snoot' with our javelinas (the museum currently has nine in residence)," says Kornmuller, "and they seem to enjoy it." [For the uninitiated, to 'boop the snoot' is to affectionately tap the nose of the boopee.] Curious to know more about this bodacious beast easily recognizable by its large, ovular head, sharp tusks and short, slender legs holding up a proportionally big body? Here are eight more factoids you might find interesting.

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1. They're Not Rodents

"This is a common misconception," says Kornmuller. "Javelinas are even-toed ungulates that belong to the Artiodactyla order, and they are closely related to sheep, goats and deer." What exactly is an even-toed ungulate? Hoofed mammals that bear weight almost equally on their third and fourth toes, rather than mostly or entirely on the third as in odd-toed ungulates, such as horses and rhinos.

2. They're Great at Communicating

Javelinas sometimes interact with each other using low grunts, barks, coughs, huffs and woofs, or by clacking their teeth. Another important part of social communication is scent marking objects like rocks and trees. Peccaries have a dorsal scent gland on their back, near their rump, that is particularly pungent. They scent mark each other, too. Standing head to tail, two peccaries rub against each others dorsal scent gland.

3. Each One's Nose Is Different

"It's like our fingerprint," says Shawnee Riplog-Peterson, curator of mammalogy and ornithology for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, via an email. "Each is an ID and unique." Speaking of the nose, they also have an excellent sense of smell. "But their eyesight is pretty poor," she adds. "Javelina can only see about 30 feet (9 meters)."

4. It's Odd for One to Venture Out Alone

That lone javelin sprinting along in Tucson evidently was an anomaly. A major adaptation for survival is that javelinas live in large family groups. The average size is 10 or less, but a few herds have known to include up to 53 females and males of all ages. Each group defends a territory that includes their sleeping and feeding areas. Herds offer some protection from predators like mountain lions, jaguars, coyotes and bears.

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5. They're Pretty Smelly

With nicknames like muskhog and skunk pig, you might imagine that javelinas emit a rather foul odor ... and you'd be right. In fact, you can smell them before you see them. "They do have a distinguishable smell, but I can't really describe it," says Kornmuller. "They love wallowing in mud to keep cool, and they are constantly rubbing on each other, so they are just dirty animals. Unrelated but a cool fact: When they rub on each other, it's called a 'javy hug.' In Spanish, the 'j' is pronounced like 'h,' so this phrase rhymes."

6. They're Classified as Herbivores

"In the desert, they eat prickly pear pads and fruit, roots and mesquite beans," says Kornmuller. "They have large canines (a weird trait for an herbivore) in order to dig into the ground for roots. But they will occasionally eat meat, she adds. "We'll find dove feathers in our exhibits from where the javys found an unlucky dove. Sweet potato is a favorite food for the javys I take care of. They feed in groups, with the more dominant members chasing others away from food occasionally."

7. They Don't Have a Breeding Season

"They breed all year long," says Kornmuller, "and gestation is 145 days. Babies are called 'reds' because of their color when they're born." While javelinas can breed any month of the year, most births occur in May, June or July. They first breed at about 1 year of age and continue to breed throughout their lifetime. Females give birth standing up and nurse the young for two months. The average litter size is two, but occasionally is as high as five. The young are capable of eating solid food by six weeks of age and fully grown by 40 weeks.

8. They Can Be Dangerous When They Need to Be

Kornmuller contends that javelinas are more defensive than aggressive, especially around their young. "Many people in this area don't like them because of their aggression," she says. "I tell people that they are defensive, not aggressive. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone." Unfortunately, if you were to encounter a herd with babies while walking your dog and got too close, she says, they would get defensive. "They might think your dog is a coyote after their young, so it's best to keep your distance and walk in the opposite direction."

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife website: "Javelina have long held an undeserved reputation for ferocity. They have poor eyesight and will often remain around humans longer than other wildlife when startled. When cornered, they can defend themselves very effectively with sharp canine teeth or 'tusks.' Many dogs have been crippled or killed when trying to attack javelina. Yet aggressive encounters with humans are very, very rare."

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