Mike's Wildlife Articles of the Osa

Courtesy of  El Sol de Osa The Osa Peninsula's Newspaper

Osa Safari: The White-Lipped Peccary
by Mike Boston of Osa Aventura

The white-lipped peccary (Dicotyles pecari) is one of two species of peccary found in Central America. It is larger than its sibling species, the collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), and more specific in its habitat requirements. Throughout its range, from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, the white-lipped peccary is confined to undisturbed primary rainforest. The collared peccary, the larger range of which extends further north into the southern United States, is able to utilize a variety of habitats from semi-desert to rainforest. A third species, the Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri), is restricted to the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, Bolivia and northwestern Argentina. It is the largest of the three known species of peccary. However, there are reports of a fourth species of peccary having been discovered in the depths of the Amazon basin. This amazing find awaits confirmation and published description - and even more amazing is that this discovery includes twelve new species of monkey, five new species of bird and a new specie of deer!

Peccaries are often referred to as wild pigs. Indeed, the local name for the white-lipped peccary is chancho de monte. However, the resemblance is merely superficial. Peccaries are not true pigs. The similarity between true pigs and peccaries is an example of convergent evolution, resulting from the fact that they both evolved independently to occupy similar ecological niches - omnivorous rooters. True pigs (family Suidae) - which include the wart hog of Africa, the babirusa of Sulawasi, the wild boar of Eurasia (from which the domestic pig is derived), among others - evolved in the Old World along parallel lines to the Peccaries, (family Tayassuidae), in the New World. An obvious difference between the two families is that in true pigs (especially pronounced in males), the upper canine teeth grow outwards and upwards forming clearly visible tusks. The upper canines of peccaries grow downwards and are not visible from the outside when their mouths are closed. In both families, the enlarged canine teeth represent formidable weapons.

Armed with long, self-sharpening canines and irascible temperaments, white-lipped peccaries are considered to be the most dangerous mammal in the Neotropics. Their redoubtable reputation is compounded by the fact that white-lipped peccaries live in large herds of 30 to 200 individuals.

The White-Lipped PeccaryIn Corcovado National Park it is not uncommon to encounter herds of white-lipped peccaries of fifty or more individuals. And these encounters are charged with tension. It is without doubt one of the most sensational experiences to find oneself amid a herd of these belligerent beasts. Beyond a certain threshold distance, white-lipped peccaries will generally run off when alerted to human presence. However, within that threshold distance they will stand their ground, and sometimes charge. Under these circumstances it is advisable to climb a tree, if possible - if not, then stand your ground!

With their bristly hairs erect along their backs, it is the males who will most vigorously defend the herd, especially if there are young present. The commotion they create, grunting, barking and loud, spine-chilling clacking of their formidable canine teeth, is enough to make one's own hairs stand on end. And with the air around rank with their fetid stench, it is rather as though all hell has broken loose!

Peccaries give birth to relatively few young - from one to three, but usually twins - which are well developed and able to run around soon after birth. This contrasts with true pigs, which give birth to large litters of helpless young.

Another difference between true pigs and peccaries is that the latter uses scent to maintain herd cohesion and to mark herd territories. Peccaries have large scent glands on their backs towards their rumps from which they secrete an oily musk with a strong, pungent smell. Very often it is their smell, described as skunk-like, that initially alerts one to the presence of peccaries.

Peccaries, like true pigs, belong to the order Artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates. They share a common ancestry, therefore, with herbivorous mammals such as deer, goats, sheep, antelope, camels, and cattle. However, peccaries, and true pigs, show an evolutionary tendency toward carnivory. Indeed, up until about 10 million years ago a huge, one-ton, predatory pig terrorized the plains of North America.

The diet of white-lipped peccaries is varied, and includes seeds, nuts, fruit, roots, and vegetation. They will also eat carrion, and live animals such as insects and their grubs, and even snakes. Their powerful jaws make them the only herbivorous mammals able to exploit the hard nuts of the raphia palm, a particularly favored food source for white-lipped peccaries.

White-lipped and collared peccaries exist side-by-side throughout much of their range, and they may easily be confused with one another. The two species differ in size - up to 75 lb and 22 inches at the shoulder for the white-lipped peccary, and 45 lb and 18 inches for the collared peccary - but unless seen together for comparison, size may not be a reliable means of distinguishing the species. Herd size and/or coloration are more reliable distinguishing characteristics: white-lipped peccaries forage in large herds, rarely less than 20 individuals and usually many more. The fur on the cheek and lower jaw of this species is cream/white. Collared peccaries, in contrast, forage in much smaller herds, usually less than 10, and rarely more than 15 individuals. While their grizzled, dark gray/brown coloration is similar to the former species, the collared peccary lacks the white chin patch. Although not always noticeable in the field, the collared peccary has a cream-colored collar running from its shoulder to its chest.

White-lipped peccaries are placed by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in appendix II - threatened! Because of their narrow habitat preference - undisturbed primary rainforest - white-lipped peccaries are particularly vulnerable to habitat destruction. As a result of widespread deforestation, populations of white-lipped peccaries in Central America have become fractionated, and reproductively isolated. And, as if this is not bad enough, these peccaries are great to eat and mercilessly hunted. In fact, it is hunting that threatens the still sizable herds of white-lipped peccaries in Corcovado National Park - the largest population of the specie left in Costa Rica.

Mike Boston is a biologist, wilderness expedition guide, and the president of Osa Aventura. You can contact him at at info@osaaventura.com