Of bones and boars

At the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the Dagger Point Trail runs about one mile/1.5 kilometers long.  Though short in length, it winds through the sandy hills of the coastal oak/redbay forest, sometimes climbing and falling at difficult angles.  Most of the trail runs through close quarters, with brush and thicket and trees creating a tunnel that reaches in and grabs you from all sides.  Fallen trees must be climbed over because no way through the surrounding understory exists.  In many places the sky vanishes behind interlocking limbs and dense foliage.

And all along the path life scampers and skitters and scurries just beyond the edge of the trail, shadows floating nearby yet never seen clearly, footfalls and feeding heard only a few steps away yet shielded from sight by near impenetrable flora.  This makes it my favorite trail at Aransas.  No alligators on this trail, of course, but the murky depths of the woodland feel otherworldly, hiding creatures both dangerous and benign with but a few steps separating you.

In a notably enclosed area of woods where no light from the cloudy sky could be seen, it felt like walking at dusk.  Yet even in the dark I had no problem recognizing that I had stumbled into someone’s dining room.

The bones remaining from an animal killed and eaten by predators at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (2009_12_13_044563)

Bones.  Not too old from what I could tell.  Clean with bits of hair still clinging to some of them.  Scraps of meat still attached here and there.  The whole not intact.  The first thing I realized was that the carnage was incomplete: the collection represented no more than a third of a full skeleton.  There was no skull or skull fragments, only a handful of ribs, enough leg bones for one and a half legs—give or take, one hoof but no other feet, part of a shattered pelvis, and about half the vertebrae necessary for a workable spine.

The bones remaining from an animal killed and eaten by predators at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (2009_12_13_044561)

My guess circled around the idea that the original predator(s) carried away parts of the kill and scavengers cleaned up the rest.  But the collection where it stood had all the signs of being where the animal first became a meal: decaying leaves notwithstanding, the ground had a deep crimson hue, the fallen foliage stained with obvious blood.  Bobcats and coyotes fill the woods around Dagger Point, yet the size of the remains indicated coyotes as the predator in question (assuming the animal didn’t die of other causes and that it wasn’t wounded or infirm before being killed).  But what I most wanted to know was the identity of the victim—mainly because that was the evidence I had on hand.

The bones remaining from an animal killed and eaten by predators at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (2009_12_13_044560)

The hoof was my first clue: it was too heavy, too thick to be deer.  Also, the leg bones were too short for a large animal.  All the bones were too robust and too developed to be a young animal.  Hence whatever it had been, it had been an adult and it hadn’t been a white-tailed deer.  That left two possibilities: a collared peccary (a.k.a. musk hog, Mexican hog or javelina; Pecari tajacu) or a wild boar (a.k.a. wild hog, boar, razorback, pineywood, rooter or European boar; Sus scrofa).

The bones remaining from an animal killed and eaten by predators at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (2009_12_13_044559)

The thickness of the legs hinted at wild boar, as did where I found the scene.  Peccaries, though not prohibited from climbing the hills to Dagger Point, seemed unlikely this far away from their usual territory and food sources.  The long, coarse black hair clinging to some of the bones looked far more like a boar in winter fur.  Still, probabilities aside, I could only assume it to have been a wild boar since so much of the skeleton was missing.  Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that was its identity before it became lunch.

The bones remaining from an animal killed and eaten by predators at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (2009_12_13_044562)

About 15 minutes after leaving the scene, I knelt in the middle of the sandy trail hoping to catch a glimpse of something large and dark that foraged about five paces from my location.  Mostly what I saw was a shadow, something bulky yet not tall, something loud and not secretive.  And something alone.

I finally caught a glimpse of its head when it moved by a small window through the understory.  A wild boar.  That it was feeding alone said as much, but it’s always nice to see it clearly enough to know for certain.  Its fur was thick and black with winter’s embrace.  Its size matched the skeleton in relative terms.  And it was in the right neighborhood.

When the boar moved down the hill a bit and vanished from sight, I moved on, finished the trail, and went on with my exploration of the refuge.  I felt in the end that the mystery was solved as much as was possible with the clues at hand: it’s highly likely pork was for dinner.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] I realize someone will think me a fool for kneeling in such an enclosed space and watching a large wild boar forage a stone’s throw away.  Maybe you’re right.  I doubt it, though.  Wild boars can be dangerous, yes, but they’re dangerous under specific circumstances.  Like all other wildlife that can harm us, boars are more afraid of us than we are of them.  Giving the creature room, not approaching it, making certain it was alone and without young, remaining silent, and being nonthreatening ensured a peaceful encounter.  In truth, the animal looked at me once when I first arrived, then it returned to the matter at hand: finding something to eat.

[2] I saw many wild boars and collared peccaries during my most recent visit to Aransas.  The peccaries were always traveling in small groups.  The boars were always traveling alone.  This suggests the boars seen were males.

[3] Though only visible in marshes where they were impossible to photograph (basically bits of head and back visible through the tall grass), the peccaries didn’t much worry about me.  They occasionally glanced at me when I first arrived, but mostly they went on with their day as though I wasn’t there.  On the other hand, the boars were skittish and ran for cover each time I came upon one (the one in the forest being the exception as it was well protected by the woods).  All the photos I have of them are of retreating beasts heading for cover.  Like this one:

A wild boar (a.k.a. wild hog, boar, razorback, pineywood, rooter or European boar; Sus scrofa) running away across a marsh (2009_12_13_044018)

Weather being what it was (foggy, dark, drizzly) and boars always being in retreat, that was the best shot I walked away with.  Hopefully I can get something better next time.

9 thoughts on “Of bones and boars”

  1. Pork – the other white meat.

    An adult boar would be a formidable opponent for all but the largest of predators – unless, as you speculate, it was sick or wounded. I would think only a panther would be capable ot tackling a healthy one.

    We must be in some synchronized alternative universe – first we both feature Promachus hinei within days of each other, then a bone mystery.

    1. I thought of a mountain lion, Ted. They’re very infrequent vagrants in the area. It’s possible, and a cougar would be the best bet for killing a healthy boar. If it was a male, it certainly had to be wounded or sick, or it died of other causes; if it was a female, a pack of coyotes could run it down. If only they’d left me more clues to work with!

      I laughed about your bone mystery post. Why? I had this post written and ready to go on the same day you did yours. After seeing your post, I decided to delay it a bit so it didn’t look like I was spying on your brain. Especially after the P. hinei moment…and the incident back in November when we both posted reptiles on the same day. (So, um, what are you posting next? I might need to go take some new pictures…)

      1. Well, you don’t have to worry about it for awhile – today’s post was pictures of me, which I’m pretty sure you don’t have any of, and on Monday House of Herps will go up… You’ve got until at least later next week before you need to start worrying – I know what I’m gonna post, but I’m not tellin’ 🙂

        I think the infrequency of mountain lions makes that an unlikely scenario. Most likely it died and was scavenged.

  2. Ahhh, a bit of mystery and field detective work are exactly what I needed. And thanks for adding some post notes. I completely concur with your expose on the wildlife encounter. Yes, certain circumstances may appear to be dangerous at first glance, but are entirely about reading the animal and properly presenting oneself as you clearly accomplished. And what we are left with is an incredible experience in which the human-wildlife encounter is in perfect harmony.

    By the way, thanks for the owl support and sorry for the delayed replies. I am hoping to get back on top of things over the next week.

    1. As much as I enjoy tracking down wildlife, Scott, I have to admit I’m always excited when I come across a scene like this. Trying to solve the mystery of what happened and to whom can be educational and enlightening; it’s also the sense of life happening right there, the struggle for survival in nature and the truth of the adage that, all things being equal, everything is food for something else.

      And I’m glad you appreciate as much as I that nature is full of great opportunities and encounters so long as it’s treated with respect and approached with understanding.

      Oh, I’m thrilled with the work your doing on behalf of the burrowing owls. No need at all to worry about responding; you have more important things to do.

      (By the way, my sincere apologies. I owe you some photography answers. I’ll send you an e-mail with the information. I made a mental note to send that to you then got sidetracked and forgot.)

    1. I’m with you, Marvin. I wish more clues had been left behind. I lodged an official complaint with the local wildlife population about giving me a whodunit mystery that couldn’t be solved!

  3. I have friends in the Dordogne whose land borders woods where wild boar roam, and on occasion the animals come to drink from a pond in Liz and Graham’s paddock. They’ve described standing motionless on their terrace at night listening to a family of boar down at the water. They’re incredibly rackety, the adults skirmishing and the young squealing. But the most viscerally memorable aspect of the nocturnal visits is the rank smell of boar that rises up to announce their presence. Liz says that she’d never go closer to spy on them, as the sounds combined with the smell sets her hair on end. She’s delighted that they visit, but there’s something about proximity to such wildness that terrifies her.

    Unfortunately the beasts have never turned up when I’ve stayed there, though I’d love to experience their presences.

    1. Funny that you mention the smell, Clive. Collared peccaries have a strong musk gland that means they’re often smelled more than seen, and wild boar have a distinctly strong odor. So imagine me on my hands and knees sniffing this collection of bones trying to pick up any scent they might have. Unfortunately, days of heavy rain followed by the drizzle and dense fog along the coast meant the only thing I could smell was damp earth and decomposing leaves; all traces of the animal’s smell had already been washed away, at least as far as my nose could discern.

      And I do hope you get to see them (or at least hear them). Their bad reputation aside, they’re fascinating and impressive in their own way.

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