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Wild, 'destructive' pigs help cultivate biodiversity in their native rainforests

Wild, 'destructive' pigs help cultivate biodiversity in their native rainforests
Wild pigs or boars are native to Malaysia and the entire of Eurasia, and are invasive in all other continents, including the Americas, but researchers say their destruction may be beneficial to their native ecosystems. Photo courtesy University of Queensland

March 3 (UPI) -- All over the world, wild hogs are considered a nuisance and a pest, but according to a new study, the hogs and their messy, destructive nest-building practices nurture biodiversity in Malaysian rainforests.

In the United States, wild hogs are responsible for $1.5 billion in damages every year, mostly by destroying crops. Occasionally, angry farmers attempt to neutralize the threat by shooting automatic weapons at hog colonies from low-flying helicopters.

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Though native to Southeast Asia, wild hogs are equally despised, but the latest findings -- published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B -- suggest the hogs help maintain tree diversity.

"Prior to giving birth, pigs build birthing nests made up of hundreds of tree seedlings, usually on flat, dry sites in the forest," lead study author Matthew Luskin said in a news release.

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"As they build their nests, the pigs kill many of the dominant seedlings and inadvertently reduce the abundance of locally dominant tree species, but usually not rarer local species, supporting tree diversity," said Luskin, a lecturer in conservation science at the University of Queensland in Australia.

The wild boar, Sus scrofa, is descended from its domesticated peers, native to Eurasia, the Americas, Australia and elsewhere, wild pigs or boars are considered invasive.

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But even in their homelands, wild pigs do damage.

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"Their negative impacts on natural and cultivated ecosystems have been well documented -- ranging from soil disturbances to attacking newborn livestock," Luskin said.

To paint a more nuanced picture of the wild hog as ecosystem engineer, scientists tagged some 30,000 tree seedlings in a Malaysian rainforest.

Researchers analyzed how the presence or absence of nesting pigs influenced the fate of the tree seedlings and the diversity of tree species in different portions of the rainforest.

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"You could consider pigs 'accidental forest gardeners' that prune common seedlings and inadvertently maintain diversity," Luskin said. "In many regions, there's a focus on managing overabundant pig populations to limit their negative environmental impacts. But our results suggest there may be some positives to maintaining pigs in the ecosystem."

Luskin and his research partners are currently working to set up a similar study in Australia to better understand the impact of wild hogs on local biodiversity differs in ecosystems where the species in non-native.

The research team is also preparing to repeat their study in a neighboring Malaysian rainforest where wild hogs are more heavily hunted.

"Pigs have become the most widespread large animal on earth, so documenting any new ecological impacts has massive repercussions globally," Luskin said.

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