San Francisco State University
Department of Geography

Geography 316:  Biogeography 

The Biogeography of the Collared Peccary (Tayassu tajacu)

Source: Gilbert (1999)

by Sara Marcellino, student in Geography 316, Fall 1999

    What’s in a name? Often, quite a bundle. The distant cousin of pig, feral hog, and boar, the star of this paper, possesses several names. To the scientific minded mammal lover, its Tayassu tajacu. The more ubiquitous designation is either "collared peccary" or "javelina" (pronounced hah-vay-lee-nah). Both latter names are important descriptors for our main character. Indeed, the name javelina, Spanish for javelin, derived from the collared peccary’s spear-like upper canines, teeth that appear quite formidable. The name collared peccary comes from the Tupi Indians of Brazil and means "an animal which makes many paths through the woods (Parker 1990)."


    Presently, javelina are found in the Western Hemisphere, from the southwestern part of the United States south to the country of Paraguay (Fig. 1). Collared peccaries are the most widely distributed of all three living peccary species – the chacoan, white-lipped, and collared – and have a range that extends from Argentina to Arizona, New Mexico and Texas (Gilbert 1999). While the three species share the same habitat, Mayer and Brandt (1982) noted that they have not been observed together in the same place. Within this vast range, the collared peccary is not ubiquitous; rather, there are areas of higher elevations where it does not live (Sowls 1997).

Figure 1: Distribution of Three Peccary Species Source: Sowls (1997)

    The collared peccary lives in both deserts and forests. Within desert environments, the peccaries look for dense areas of prickly pear, chaparral, scrub oak, or dry scrub. They often end up in habitats such as oak forests and saguaro deserts, looking for desert canyons and cliffs for shade. Parker (1990) noted how javelinas are found in the above mentioned areas from the western continental coastline up to an elevation of approximately 1100 feet (2400 meters). Looking at the geographic areas of the Sonoran Desert, one would find saguaro cactus and prickly pear, as well as some timbered slopes and brushy valleys, sought by the peccary for protective cover (Sowls 1997).
    Most writing on the collared peccary focuses on its desert habitat, almost portraying the misconception that collared peccaries are animals of the desert. The main reason for this discrepancy is the fact that the collared peccary’s study areas primarily originate in the English-speaking southwestern United States. However, no discussion is complete without a look at their rainforest habitat. Ockenfels et al. (1985) noted that the collared peccary range in South America is twenty-seven times as large as the state of Arizona! The rainforest range is heavily forested and humid -- expanding the javelina’s distribution while exemplifying its adaptability. In undisturbed rainforests, the collared peccary is sympatric with the white-lipped peccary (Sowls, 1997). Peccaries are also found in pristine and slightly degraded rain, cloud, and dry forests, palm and mangrove swamps and abandoned pastures (Ockenfels et al. 1985).

The collared peccary’s taxonomic position in relation to those animals in the Animalia Kingdom and Phylum Chordata is:

Class -- Mammalia; Order-- Artiodactyla; Family -- Tayassuidae; Genus -- Tayassu; Species -- Tayassu tajacu

Food and Water

    Collared peccaries smell for food with their snout. They have a unique niche in the natural world and the general adaptability of the collared peccary translates into its food and water needs. All three peccary species are omnivorous in general, but plant material makes up the largest portion of their diets (Mayer and Brandt 1982; Ticer et al.1994). Food source varies depending on which region the peccary inhabits. For example, in the tropical rain forests they are primarily frugivores, living on fruit that falls from trees (Sowls 1997). In the desert biomes, they use their strong canine-like teeth to chew on course foods -- mainly cactus fruit, berries, tubars, bulbs, and rhizomes (Nowak 1991). Shively et al. (1985) added that peccaries consume many different foods, including pads of the prickly pear, roots of plants such as Agave palmeri and A. schottii. They also eat reproductive structures such as acorns and gourds from mesquite (Mayer and Brandt 1982). As carnivores, their diet includes grubs, worms, insect larvae, insects, toads, lizards, snakes, eggs of turtles and alligators, eggs and young of ground-nesting birds, and carrion (Mayer and Brandt 1982).
    Water is a vital resource to most mammals and is important to the collared peccary, especially lactating females living in desert habitats (Okenfels et al. 1986). Javelina in the tropics typically lived near running streams. Desert javelina frequented waterholes but did not rely on them (Sowls 1997). Collared peccaries seem capable of maintaining full hydration under moderately hot and dry desert conditions with very little need to remain near free-standing water (Zervanos and Day 1977). Sowls (1997) discussed the various studies concerning water’s role in collared peccary habitat, synthesizing that most agreed on the extreme importance of succulent plants. If succulents were available, a permanent water source deemed inconsequential. Most studies indicated this important collared peccary adaptation, especially in times of drought.

Peccary Knawing on Cactus Source: Gilbert (1999)


    The external morphology of the collared peccary resembles that of a pig or swine. Of all three peccary species, the collared peccary is smallest and appears longest in the drier areas of Texas (Fig. 2). The hairs are generally gray or black with a few white zones. They have slender legs and relatively small feet in proportion to the rest of the body. The teeth – of prime significance to the observer of the collared peccary – evolved less for food consumption and more as a defense mechanism (Sowls 1997). Most weight data showed an average weight of twenty pounds (Sowls 1997). Collared peccaries have a unique digestive system (Shively et al. 1985). Allen (1984) noted this unusual stomach with three compartments and suggested bacteria digest the cellulose.

Figure 2 Size of Collared Peccary Source: Sowls (1997)


    Reproduction of the collared peccary, namely gestation periods, breeding seasons, parturition, characteristics of newborns, and reproductive behavior – are all important concepts to understand (Sowls 1997). Mating occurs with the dominant or alpha male doing the majority of breeding (Day 1985). Collared peccaries have no harems and are polygamous; thus long-term pair bonds are not formed. (Sowls 1997, Day 1985). The dominant male usually looks after the female once she becomes impregnated. Peak breeding of the collared peccary in the northern range occurs in the winter months, whereas breeding occurs throughout the year in the tropics (Sowls 1997).
    The gestation period lasts an average of 145 days (Ockenfels et al. 1986). Parturition, or bearing young collared peccaries, occurs year-round in Arizona, Texas and Mexico, with the highest frequency in Arizona during the summer months (Mayer and Brandt 1982; Sowls 1997). Enders ((1935) cited in Mayer and Brandt (1982) believed that the collared peccary on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, birthed only early in the year. The newborn peccary usually arrives in a litter of one to four (Bissonette 1982). Young are born in a thicket, hollow log, cave, or burrow dug by other animals. Lactation lasts for six to eight weeks and the young stay with the mother for 2-3 months (Sowls 1997). All of this information on the reproduction and productivity of peccaries is essential for implementing management practices that conserve peccary populations over short and long time-scales (Gottdenker 1998).

Javelina as Social Creatures

    The published data pertaining to the social system and interactions of the collared peccary does not always agree (Ockenfels et al. 1985). Herds of collared peccaries range in size from two to over fifty individuals, composed of males and females of all ages (Mayer and Brandt 1982). All whom study peccaries discussed their penchant for moving and living in herds. Socially, Green and Grant (1984) looked at the variance in numbers within collared peccary herds. They found that regarding herd structure, while using open habitats as context, peccaries indeed moved, fed, and rested together as one social unit (Green and Grant 1984). In this study, larger groups were found in the winter months.
    Collared peccaries communicate through scent marking and a variety of vocalizations (Nowak 1991). Vocally, Bissonette (1982) described them as aggressive, submissive, and alert. Sowls (1997) referred to the sounds made by collared peccaries as "purring", "complaining", "low grunts", "barks", "continuous grumbles", "tooth clicking", and "woofs." The dorsal scent gland is rubbed against tree trunks and other objects for territorial marking (Nowak 1991).
    Each group of Tayassu tajacu has a home range of approximately 0.5-8 sq. km. -- its center the exclusive territory. MacDonald (1984) described the territories of collared peccaries as stable, allowing for a strong defense against intruders. These territories vary in size (74-690 acres or 30-280 hectares) depending on vegetation type and vegetation quantity, as well as the distribution of food resources. One study of the home range size of the collared peccary in Venezuela found that during the dry season the home range size was between 38.1 and 44.7 hectares. The transition range was 45.7 to 56.0 hectares, while the rainy season ranged between 99.8 to 126.0 hectares (Ockenfels et al. 1985).
    Daily activities consist mainly of feeding. For the collared peccary, activity depends on temperature, food availability, and hunting pressure (Bissonette 1982; Mayer and Brandt 1982). In Arizona, peccaries are more nocturnal in the hotter summer months. In Texas, studies revealed peccaries to be nocturnal in the spring, summer, and fall and very active during the daylight hours in the winter months (Ockenfels et al. 1985). Bissonette (1982) noted how collared peccaries in Big Bend, Texas showed a seasonal preference for habitat – dense vegetation during the summer months and open areas in winter.

Peccary Herd near Water Hole Source: Sowls (1997)

    Defensively, the collared peccary uses its canine teeth, denning, its larger herd formations, nocturnal habits, and greater flexibility of forward vision as defense mechanisms (Wetzel 1977). Older juveniles will bristle its fur to appear larger, often protecting piglets below, although no quills exist (Day 1985). Predators of the collared peccary include the mountain lion, jaguar, and coyote. Immature peccaries are also prey for the ocelot, bobcat, and boa constrictor. Occasionally, the golden eagle kills collared peccaries (Mayer and Brandt 1982). Prior to the decline of the jaguar population, they were considered the most important javelina predator (Ticer et al. 1994).

Human Influence

    Human influence on the javelina is ubiquitous. Collared peccaries are subsistence animals for several indigenous tribes in Central America where the meat is a major source of protein, hides are leather, and bones and teeth make tools or decorations (Ockenfels et al. 1985). Gottdenker (1998) noted the integral nature of the collared peccary to the Amazonian ecosystem, especially as an important source of meat for local people. White explorers saw peccaries as "vermin" (Ockenfels et al. 1985). Like most wild animals, javelina prefer avoiding humans rather than confronting them (Ticer et al. 1994). However, conflicts occur when collared peccaries are attracted to food, water, and shelter unique to human’s urban life, especially when homes are built in free-range territory of the peccary.
    Rapidly increasing population as well as the meshing of rural and urban areas increases the number of human-javelina interactions. Bellantoni and Krausman (1991) noted that differences in habitat use between urban and non-urban peccaries illustrate their highly adaptable nature. Detailed records kept by several homeowners in Tucson indicated that peccaries acclimated to urban environments and had been visiting some homes and restaurants daily for years (Bellantoni and Krausman 1991). Food items sought most often consisted of table scraps, birdseed, bread, and dog food (Bellantoni and Krausman 1991). Economics also exists within this discussion, especially in Arizona, as collared peccaries are important to the state’s economy as second most hunted big-game animal (Day 1985; Ticer et al. 1994).
    Human influence certainly exists in Central and South American collared peccary habitats. The shrinking range of the collared peccary is correlated with the decrease in forests within South America (Ockenfels et al. 1985). Indeed, numbers of collared peccary have dropped because of overexploitation and habitat destruction. Peres (1996) noted how the collared peccary is a preferred game species in Amazonian forests. In Central America, war was named as another human affect on peccary populations (Ockenfels et al. 1985). Even though the javelina is an adaptable species able to exist within a variety of different vegetative communities and climates, we must not ignore the human impact on the present and future existence of the collared peccary because few issues have stimulated as much concern among ecologists and conservationists as the loss of biodiversity (Sowls 1997).


    Most writers agree that peccaries originated in the Western Hemisphere and that the true pigs, members of the Suidae family, developed in the Eastern Hemisphere (Sowls 1997). Thus pigs appeared in the Old World, peccaries in North America and both were of the early Oligocene age, circa thirty-five million years ago (Sowls 1997).
    Throughout their phylogenetic histories these artiodactyls, although clearly related to each other, retained separate ranges and thus had parallel but separate histories (Sowls 1997). Mayer and Brandt (1982) believed the collared peccary originated from the Suidae family during the late Eocence (50 Million Years Ago) in Eurasia. Geologically, Wetzel (1977) and Mayer and Brandt (1982) broke peccary history down as follows: from the Oligocene to Miocene (20 MYA) in Europe, the Pliocene in India, the Oligocene to recent in North America, and the Pleistocene (2MYA) to recent in South America.
    Waggoner (1996) noted how systematic relationships of artiodactyls are still being worked out. Although I was unable to locate a cladogram offering a tree-like diagram pertaining to artiodactyl evolution, Waggoner offered the traditional methods used to classify them. Their scheme is listed under "Suina" and includes Tayassuidae (peccaries), Suidae, and Hippopotamidae. A simple stomach, omnivorous diet, and unspecified teeth characterize these families (Waggoner 1996).     Sowls (1997) offered several varying explanations regarding peccary phylogeny. One argument suggested that since no Eurasian peccaries are known from later than the Miocene (24 MYA), it is unlikely that peccaries of the Americas have any direct phyletic relationship. Another argument described the migration of peccaries from North America to South America during the great mammal interchange late in the Tertiary period, following the rise of the Central American Land Bridge (Sowls 1997).
    Sowls (1997) noted that since the peccaries first evolved during the Oligocene, many forms of the peccary have appeared and become extinct. Of the early peccaries, more information exists on the genus Platygonus than any other form (Fig. 3). The remains of Platygonus have been found in most parts of the United States, as well as parts of Central and South America. Some remains were found as far north as the Yukon Territory, Canada (Sowls 1997). Some writers have speculated on the type of climate and vegetation that existed in the Western Hemisphere when Platygonus inhabited the continents. Wetzel (1977) suggested that Platygonus was adapted for arid, open environments, thus adding to speculation as to the type of climate and vegetation that existed during this time. Sowls (1997) believed that Platygonus inhabited grasslands and savannas, hence an indicator of today’s drier climate.

Figure 3 Artist’s impression of two extinct and three living peccaries. A, Platgonus (late Pleistocene); B, Mylohyus sp. (late Pleistocene); C, Chacoan peccary (living); D, white-lipped peccary (living), E, collared peccary (living)


    My first glimpse and impetus to research the collared peccary came this summer, while looking at a set of nature stamps from the Sonoran Desert. Along with white-winged doves and a desert cottontail sat three pig-like creatures, snouts to the ground. The descriptor read: Collared Peccary. What’s a collared peccary? Now I know.
    The collared peccary’s story is unique. An examination of the literature devoted to its community lifestyle, eclectic habitats, and curious history evolved into a worthwhile quest. Indeed, this paper only highlighted the main facets of Tayassu tajacu, and more information exists about the collared peccary’s physiology, anatomy, causes of natural mortality, and conservation. Conservation and management, especially in heavily hunted areas such as the southwest United States and parts of Latin America where the animals are culturally important to indigenous people, is vital to the continuing existence of the collared peccary. One main group devoted to this cause is the Pigs and Peccaries Specialist Group of the IUCN (World Conservation Union), which gathers and distributes information. They recently prepared an action plan for establishing priorities in conservation and management of pigs and peccaries (Sowls 1997).
    So, whether interested in taboos and myths surrounding wild peccaries, or taming and rearing a pet peccary, helping conserve peccary habitats, or just plain curious, I’d highly recommend more study of these handsomely cute creatures. Just look at ‘em! Studying the Tayassu tajacu, otherwise known as the javelina or collared peccary, is a worthwhile investment of time and energy.

Source: Sowls (1997)



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