Tuesday, May 2, 2017


One of my Santa Cruz friends departed for Arizona a couple of years ago, but she was back this weekend with tales of living in the Southwestern desert. One of the creatures she sometimes has to contend with that we don't have on the Central Coast is the javelina. Apparently, they are rather awful creatures, although their offspring are quite cute. One of the sad trends of life in general, I'm afraid. They like to get into the garbage cans, and make horrible warring noises while contending with each other. It is not altogether out of the question that they will make themselves at home on the porch. Yikes. (Here's a little mp3 that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum put out of how they sound when not fighting. Listen to the end.)

Then, I happened to be reading a novel today, New Dawn by Sudha Balagopal, which also takes place in Arizona. In the part I read, two friends are out on a hike and one hears a strange noise, and wonders, what was that? The other says, likely a coyote or a javalina. Obviously, it was time to do a little research.

I know vaguely that javalinas are a bit like wild boars in nature--or think I know that. But maybe I am visualizing them completely wrong. In any case, two references in under two days is always a sign to me to dig a little further.

"Running Javelina" by Wing-Chi Poon

Hmm. Not as ferocious looking as I'd have thought. No long scary tusks, for one thing. (though the do have small straight ones, which have been adapted for crushing seeds and cutting roots.)The javelina, it turns out, is not a wild pig. It is a peccary. Pigs and peccaries bear a distant relationship, but have several differences. For one thing, all the extant peccaries are native to the Americas, while pigs and wild boars and the like are from Europe, Asia and Africa. Those we have here are all imports. Apparently there were some Old World peccaries, but they are all extinct.

Some other distinctions according to the folks at Animals.mom.me. While pigs have long, hairy tails, peccary tails are small and not visible. Peccary ears are smaller, and pigs ears are large and upright. Other small differences lie in the number of teeth they have and the number of back toes. Peccaries are apparently also distinguished by their scent glands, which this website says lie along their backs and above their tails, though Wikipedia says that they also have some under their eyes. In any case, they use them for marking territory and identifying themselves within a group. It's perhaps no accident, then, that some other names for the peccary are "skunk pig" and "musk hog."

"Peccary" comes from the Cariban language, which is a native South American language group. The original word is pakira or paquira, according to Wikipedia. "Javalina", unsurprisingly, is a Spanish word, which is an alteration of jabalina, the feminine form of jabali, or wild boar. Jabali  stems from Arabic jabal meaning mountain. So hinzir (or khinzir) jabal means "mountain swine."

As Language Hat points out, one should not be swayed by folk etymologies such as one that claims they are called javelinas after their short sharp tusks, which would be named for the Spanish word for javelin or spear. It's a bit complicated, though, because Spanish javelins actually ARE called javelinas. And why are they called javelins anyway? Well, maybe we'll get into that next time. Meanwhile, here's a little picture book about javelinas in case you can't get enough of them. The story sounds a tad familiar...almost like a certain pig story you might happen to know.