By Marla Lise
White-lipped peccary posing for a self-portrait at a camera trap. Photo by Alexine Keuroghlian
Scientific Name: Tayassu pecari
White-Lipped Peccaries are found in the Cerrado and Pantanal forests of South America.
Peccaries, or Queixadas, as they are locally known as, are the unsung, misunderstood heroes of environmental engineering in the Cerrado and Pantanal biomes of South America.
Peccaries might have certain physical attributes and characteristics similar to pigs and warthogs; however, contrary to popular opinion they do not belong to the same family. They do wallow in the mud and use their snouts to dig up fruit, seeds and roots, just like pigs and warthogs, but similarities stop there. One major difference is that the canines of pigs and warthogs never stop growing – therefore they end up growing right through the top of the pigs’ snouts – sealing them shut, leaving the emaciated animal to slowly starve to death. Peccaries are also not omnivores. They feed mainly on fruit but are known to supplement their diet with plants and roots.
Peccaries can grow up to 130cm and weigh about 32kg. They have 4 large canines in the front of their mouth – used for warding off predators and their molars help them crush seeds. In the bush, you can hear them clamp their teeth shut – like slapping 2 wooden rulers together. They have about a 1 to 1 sex ratio and travel in big herds ranging from 20-100 individuals, like a big family hike through the forest. Peccaries are unique in that they are gregarious ungulates * – but are not sexually dimorphic – which is unique for ungulates. They are also unique because they give birth to twins, usually a pair a year. When peccaries encounter a predator, they scatter like marbles in all different directions to cause confusion. This behavior has given birth to an urban legend that the peccaries actually surround people and kill them. However, peccaries will not harm people.
They have very important roles in the ecosystem. Acting as forest engineers, they change habitats and allow for the succession of different animals and plants. They aggregate around trees bearing fruit that they like and feed off the fallen fruit on the forest grounds. In doing so they churn up the soil, bury seeds, and create a perfect environment for new plants to grow.
Peccaries also play multiple ecological roles, acting both as seed predators and dispersers as well as being an important part of the diet of large carnivores, such as jaguars and pumas. Since peccaries are on both ends of the food chain, a decrease in their numbers can disrupt the entire ecosystem.
Peccaries are highly sensitive to environmental degradation since they rely so highly on various species of fruit trees and degraded forests are not able to provide a sufficient amount of food. Due to this, they are indicators of healthy forests.
Peccary numbers are dwindling due to the deforestation occurring in this region. Forests are being cut down at an alarming rate to make way for cattle farms. Farms can range from 10 – 30 000 hectares and it is only mandatory for them to keep 20% of the property as native vegetation.
There are 2 types of peccaries here in Brazil – the White-Lipped and the Collared peccaries. Collared peccaries are more adaptable than White-Lipped ones and are able to survive in a smaller range, therefore are not as vulnerable. Currently the White-Lipped peccaries are the priority for field biologists studying the species, however as more and more forest is being cleared, the Collared peccaries might be on the endangered list as well.
Field biologists monitor peccaries by following their tracks, looking for fruits that they like, using camera traps, radio tracking using radio collars and DNA testing by looking for peccary hair around disturbed areas.
To catch peccaries – a bait of salt water is used. A plastic bottle filled with salt water is hung nearby and the water is allowed to drip out slowly – this then attracts the peccaries to the area. Cages are set in areas with noted peccary movement, usually under fruit trees and baited with native fruit, salt and corn.
Research is being done to determine forest corridors that peccaries use during different times of the year, and by identifying these forests, many other species will also be helped.
Monitoring animals is hard work. Field biologists have to follow tracks made by the animals and look out for fruit that they might like in order to find the animals, whether it be walking through rivers, up and down slippery hillsides with dense vegetation or through thick mud and swamps.
Quinta Do Sol is a research center based in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso Do Sul that works with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Brazil to monitor peccary populations in the Pantanal and Cerrado forests. They have been monitoring the species in the region for 13 years and have collected substantial and valuable information. Together, they also act as consultants to farmers, giving them courses and advice on how to run their farms in a sustainable fashion. They have recently published a research article on how rotational farming practices are able to make more efficient use of the land and are continuing with the research in different farms.
Other NGO’s that work with them include REPAMS and RPPN – Landowners are allowed to designate some of their land as a private reserve, meaning that even after the land is sold, the reserve should be maintained as such. These NGO’s assist interested parties with the tedious and complicated processes involved in the applications in order to encourage more people to conserve the native vegetation in their property. They also sometimes receive donations that allow funding for other related projects such as nurseries and reforestation programs.
As more people become informed of the problems facing the forests and the fauna that live within them, hopefully the huge problem of deforestation will be controlled and reforestation programs will be able to increase the habitats for peccaries and the other species that share their home.
Keuroghlian, A. and Eaton, D.P. (2009 ) Removal of palm fruits and ecosystem engineering in palm stands by white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari) and other frugivores in an isolated Atlantic Forest fragment. Biodiversity and Conservation. 18 (7), 1733-1750.
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