Peccaries, which are native to the Americas, are often confused with the pig family that originated in Afro-Eurasia, especially since some domestic pigsbrought by European settlers have escaped over the years and now run wild as "razorback" hogs in many parts of the United States. In many countries, especially in the developing world, they are raised on farms as a source of food for local communities.
The word peccary is derived from the Carib word pakira or paquira. In Portuguese, a peccary is called pecari, porco-do-mato, queixada, or tajaçu, among other names; in Spanish, "javelina", jabalí, sajino, or pecarí; in French Guiana and Suriname, pakira.
A peccary is a medium-sized animal, with a strong resemblance to a pig. Like a pig, it has a snout ending in a cartilaginous disc, and eyes that are small relative to its head. Also like a pig, it uses only the middle two digits for walking, although, unlike pigs, the other toes may be altogether absent. Its stomach is not ruminating, although it has three chambers, and is more complex than those of pigs.
Peccaries are omnivores, and will eat insects, grubs, and occasionally small animals, although their preferred foods consist of roots, grasses, seeds, fruit, and cacti—particularly prickly pear. Pigs and peccaries can be differentiated by the shape of the canine tooth, or tusk. In European pigs, the tusk is long and curves around on itself, whereas in peccaries, the tusk is short and straight. The jaws and tusks of peccaries are adapted for crushing hard seeds and slicing into plant roots, and they also use their tusks for defending against predators. The dental formula for peccaries is: 126.96.36.199.1.3.3
By rubbing the tusks together, they can make a chattering noise that warns potential predators not to get too close. In recent years in northwestern Bolivia near Madidi National Park, large groups of peccaries have been reported to have seriously injured or killed people.
Peccaries are social animals, and often form herds. Over 100 individuals have been recorded for a single herd of white-lipped peccaries, but collared and Chacoan peccaries usually form smaller groups. Such social behavior seems to have been the situation in extinct peccaries, as well. The recently discovered giant peccary (Pecari maximus) of Brazil appears to be less social, primarily living in pairs. Peccaries rely on their social structure to defend territory, protect against predators, regulate temperature, and interact socially.
Peccaries have scent glands below each eye and another on their backs, though these are believed to be rudimentary in P. maximus. They use the scent to mark herd territories, which range from 75 to 700 acres (2.8 km2). They also mark other herd members with these scent glands by rubbing one against another. The pungent odor allows peccaries to recognize other members of their herd, despite their myopic vision. The odor is strong enough to be picked up by humans, which earns the peccary the nickname of "skunk pig".
Three (possibly four) living species of peccaries are found from the southwestern United States through Central America and into South America and Trinidad.
The collared peccary (Pecari tajacu) or "musk hog", referring to the animal's scent glands, occurs from the southwestern United States into South America and the island of Trinidad. The coat consists of wiry peppered black, gray, and brown hair with a lighter colored "collar" circling the shoulders. They bear young year-round, but most often between November and March, with the average litter size consisting of two to three piglets. They are found in all kinds of habitats, from arid scrublands to humid tropical rain forests. The collared peccary is well adapted to habitat disturbed by humans, merely requiring sufficient cover; they can be found in cities and agricultural land throughout their range. Notable populations exist in the suburbs of Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, where they feed on ornamental plants and other cultivated vegetation. Collared peccaries are generally found in bands of eight to 15 animals of various ages. They defend themselves if they feel threatened, but otherwise tend to ignore humans. They defend themselves with their long tusks, which sharpen themselves whenever the mouth opens or closes.
A second species, the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), is mainly found in rainforests of Central and South America, but also known from a wide range of other habitats such as dry forests, grasslands, mangrove, cerrado, and dry xerophytic areas.
The third species, the Chacoan peccary (Catagonus wagneri), is the closest living relative to the extinct Platygonus pearcei. It is found in the dry shrub habitat or Chaco of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina. The Chacoan peccary has the unusual distinction of having been first described based on fossils and was originally thought to be only an extinct species. In 1975, the animal was discovered to still be alive and well in the Chaco region of Paraguay. The species was well known to the native people.
A fourth as yet unconfirmed species, the giant peccary (Pecari maximus), was described from the Brazilian Amazon and north Bolivia by Dutch biologist Marc van Roosmalen. Though relatively recently discovered, it has been known to the local Tupi people as caitetu munde, which means "great peccary which lives in pairs". Thought to be the largest extant peccary, it can grow to 1.2 m (3.9 ft) in length. Its pelage is completely dark gray, with no collars whatsoever. Unlike other peccaries, it lives in pairs, or with one or two offspring. However, the scientific evidence for considering it as a species separate from the collared peccary has later been questioned, leading the IUCN to treat it as a synonym.