In the interests of recycling old material from Tet Zoo ver 1, I present… yes, a whole series of articles devoted to one of the most unusual and remarkable of hoofed mammals. Come on, we all love babirusas. If you’ve been with Tet Zoo from the beginning, none of what’s to follow will be new [adjacent photo from here]. For the rest of you: buckle up and enjoy the ride…
You might be surprised to learn that babirusas have been known to westerners for a comparatively long time, having been named Sus babyrussa by Linnaeus in 1758 (the generic name Babyrousa was first coined by Perry in 1811). In fact babirusas were first mentioned in the European literature as early as 1658, and there have even been claims that the Romans knew of babirusas in the 1st century AD. Linnaeus wrongly identified Borneo as the babirusa homeland, and over the following years other authors misidentified Sumatra, Amboina and elsewhere as the place where babirusas came from.
Today we know that they are endemic to Sulawesi, the adjacent Togean (or Togian) Islands, the Sula Islands (just east of central Sulawesi) and Buru (south-east of the Sula Islands, and the most westerly of the Moluccas). What might also surprise you is that the babirusas found across these islands are not all alike, and in fact the sort of babirusas we are all familiar with – those with naked skin and upper canines that curve in a circle – are by no means representative of these animals as a whole. Historically, babirusas were probably present across the whole of Sulawesi, but by the 19th century they had disappeared from the south-western peninsula. As of 1990, they were still present on Buru and two of the Sula Islands (Mangole and Taliabu), but have become extinct on others (Macdonald 1993). Thanks to logging, habitat destruction and illegal hunting, babirusas are under pressure across their range [image below shows captive male babirusa at Marwell Zoo, England. This individual is in the strange habit of covering his tusks with mud].
Sula Island and Buru babirusas have often been regarded as introduced. While this is likely (we know that Sulawesi people kept babirusas and traded them far and wide because of their remarkable appearance and good eating), these populations actually represent distinct taxa, the biogeographical origins of which remain obscure. However, it’s also conceivable that the Sula and Buru babirusas colonised the respective islands naturally, as babirusas are very strong swimmers and well able to make short sea journeys. On Sulawesi, babirusas have been observed swimming across the 10-km-wide Lake Poso (Melisch 1994).
Well, this was a brief intro. Lots more to come!
For other Tet Zoo articles on artiodactyls see…
- McGowan’s mystery bovid
- The legend of Hogzilla
- Welcome…. to the world of sheep
- Return…. to the world of sheep
- Tet Zoo picture of the day # 23 [on entelodonts]
- Deer oh deer, this joke gets worse every time I use it
- Duiker, rhymes with biker
- Sable antelopes and the miseducation of youth
- Giant killer pigs from hell
- The plasticity of deer
- Over 400 new mammal species have been named since 1993
- Great Asian cattle
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 1: Khama
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 2: Eland
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 3: Okapi
- Death by lightning for giraffes, elephants, sheep and cows
- Dromomerycids: discuss
Refs – –
Macdonald, A. A. 1993. The babirusa (Babyrousa babyrussa). In Oliver, W. L. R. (ed) Pigs, Peccaries and Hippos Status Survey and Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Pigs and Peccaries Specialist Group & IUCN/SSC Hippos Specialist Group (Gland, Switzerland), pp. 161-171.
Melisch, R. 1994. Observation of swimming babirusa in Lake Poso, central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Malayan Nature Journal 47, 431-432.