Any day at dusk here in the Chihuahuan Desert or the Davis Mountains one sees families of Javelinas, called squadrons, looking like grey, hairy tanks on spindly stilts, scooting across the desert between the prickly pear cactus and the scrubby mesquite clumps. These strange looking beasties are the longest surviving species of mammal on the earth. The earliest examples found lived during the Eocene period some 37 million years ago. The collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu), known in Big Bend as the Javelina, has managed to survive, adapt and continue to populate the deserts of the Americas from the southwestern United States to as far south as Argentina. They live together in family groups of between eight and fifteen, headed by the biggest, strongest male. As a group they mark and defend their territory.
Sometimes javelinas are called skunk pigs or musk hogs because of their strong scent. But don’t go worrying about it being some kind of handicap, because for the Javiar and Lena family it is a signature perfume.
Javelina have very poor eyesight and use their sense of smell to identify each other. They rub up against each other, creating an individualized family perfume. If a wily stranger tries to enter the area, their nose reveals the interloper even from a good distance. A javelina’s sense of smell rivels any bloodhound on the trail. Their first defense against predators is to smell them coming; suddenly the entire family is off and running at up to 38 or 40 miles per hour. If necessary, the adults will attack an enemy and although the are good fighters with strong bodies and vicious teeth and jaws, a head-on fight is always the last resort. They would rather depend on their perfume makers “nez” and fast legs.
An adult male can weigh up to 78 pounds but 60 to 65 is average, females are between 44 and 65 pounds. They are fully adult in about a year. Mothers separate themselves from the family and set up a small nursery territory where the males are not allowed for the first few weeks of a newborn’s life. It may be that there is some danger that the adult males could kill the baby. Newborns are tiny, weighing only one or one-and-a-half pounds at birth, reddish to light brown in color, and are called reds. Even though they are very small a red is up on his legs in 15 minutes. They grow quickly, nursing for only two to three months. By three months the adult color has come in, he is weaned and foraging for his own food.
A javelina’s favorite food is prickly pear cactus, both the pads and the tunas. Those tunas make a great jam and the pads are tasty with eggs, but you must take great care to avoid the sharp spines. Javelinas are completely unbothered by the spines. They just munch away, no problem! They have a special three-chambered stomach that enables them to digest very tough, fibrous vegetation. The Javiar and Lena family are omnivores and eat anything they find from snakes, toads and carrion to roots, mesquite beans and agave. Like bears and raccoons, they have adapted well to human habitation and can be a nuisance by raiding trash and grazing on tasty landscaping. You may find them napping under your car or camper, or rooting around in your tent looking for tasty treats. Just another reason to keep food and trash out of reach.
The family has a territory, but they do not have a den. They make themselves comfortable during the day by rooting out a shallow spot and resting in the shade. They are busy early in the morning and again late in the afternoon, often staying up quite late partying and enjoying each other’s company. They rub up against each other, grunting and chattering or calling each other with woofs and barks. When they sleep they stay near each other and keep in touch with sounds and smell. They are very verbal and respond to sounds and calls. Javelinas are near-sighted, but their hearing and sense of smell make up for the weak eyesight. If you threaten one or make one feel cornered, he will warn you by clacking his teeth loudly. Back away. It is not wise to confront a javelina, they run in squadrons and can be formidable fighters when need be.
Javelinas have one or two litters a year, depending on the weather patterns. If there is plenty of rain and the plants are big and healthy there will be more baby reds. A litter is usually two babies. They are smart and have learned to adapt well to changes in the environment. They have a strong family structure and crippled family members continue to be included over time.
Traditionally some natives have raised javelina as domestic animals for food and hides. The Mayans kept squadrons for meat and hides as well as for ceremonial reasons. No one is known to have a corral of them now, but they are an important part of the ecosystem. They are an intermediary species. They dig shallow wallows where water can collect, rooting out wet spots and allowing small animals to gather. Their eating habits redistribute seed and spread plant growth by circulating the seed through their digestive system, leaving droppings of seeds, fertilizer attached, all over the family ranch. They provide food for apex predators like cougars and wolves.
Javelinas are a game animal, hunted for meat and hides in the Southwestern United States and throughout Mexico, Central and South America. There are outfitters right here in Big Bend that take out hunting parties on private ranches. Barring early death by the many dangers of being a javelina scooting around a vast desert, they have a life span of 25 to 30 years and are presently considered to be a viable and successful animal.
So when the shadows get long and the sun is resting low in the sky, stop a minute and listen to Javiar and Lena and the gang head out for their day. You will hear them woof and snuffle to each other as they start their evening meal. A strange-looking beastie that leads a regulation family life.