The deer-pig, the Raksasa, the only living anthracothere... welcome to the world of babirusas


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...

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.


More like this

In the previous articles we looked at the distribution and phylogenetic position of babirusas, and also at a bit of their behaviour, biology and morphology. While babirusas are famous for the bizarre upper canines that emerge from the dorsal surface of the snout in males, the function of these…
Welcome to yet another article in the (outstandingly successful, yet recycled from ver 1) series on babirusas. Observant readers will have noticed that, strangely, I've refrained thus far from using a scientific binomial for babirusas, plus I've consistently (I think) referred to them in the…
The bipedal 'boxing' behaviour of babirusas is odd, but arguably odder is a unique sort of 'ploughing' behaviour they've recently been shown to practise. On being presented with an area of soft sand, captive babirusas (mostly males) have been noted to kneel down and push their head and chest…
More on babirusas! Go here for part I. While babirusas look pig-like and are classified as part of Suidae, they're distinctive and unusual [image above from wikipedia]. Combining rather slender legs with a barrel-shaped body, they can exceed 1 m in length and have a shoulder height of 65-80 cm.…

I'm waiting for the explanation of the highly provocative title. Babirusas aren't suids? Or anthracotheres are, and have nothing to do with hippos? I hope it turns out to be the former, because that would be more fun.

By John Harshman (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

there have even been claims that the Romans knew of babirusas in the 1st century AD.

Very interesting. Details, please!

a Babirussa is mentioned at the beginning of '20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea' it gets left behind at a hotel when Prof Arronnax leaves New York to hunt the mysterious monster (that turns out to be the Nautilus).

Mud-covered tusks might alleviate cold temperature sensitivity, possibly mammoths and shovel tuskers in cold climates did that too? Yay babirusas!

The anthracothere idea is bogus, but it's been suggested a few times: in his 1981 book on pigs, Colin Groves even said 'previously I have dismissed such an idea, but really it is impossible to place a finger on any definite resemblance of the Babirusa to any other suid, and perhaps it is an anthracothere after all' (Groves 1981, p. 3). Clearly, it's too interesting not to mention. It's discussed in a later article (the next one, I think).

The 'Roman link' is, unfortunately, something I know next to nothing about: in discussing Piso's 1658 description of the babirusa, Groves (1980) stated 'Even if, with Mohr (1958: 67-68), we reject the notion that it was known to the Romans in the 1st century A.D.... [this] is still remarkably early' (p. 45). So, you'd need to see Mohr (1958) to go further with this, and I don't have this reference. Let me know if you can track it down!

Refs - -

Groves, C. P. 1980. Notes on the systematics of Babyrousa (Artiodactyla, Suidae). Zoologische Mededelingen 55, 29-46.

- . 1981. Ancestors for the Pigs: Taxonomy and Phylogeny of the Genus Sus. Technical Bulletin 3, Department of Prehistory, Research School Pacific Studies, Australian National University.

Mohr, E. 1958. Zur Kenntnis des Hirschebers, Babirussa babyrussa Linné 1758. Zool. Garten (NF) 25, 50-69.

A most interesting wild Pig, the name does sound Biblical

By Bob Michaels (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

is the Marwell specimen learned in sheathing blades? (just a thought)

Harry Turtledove once wrote a short story in which a breed of pig was engineered to be his intro (in the anthology), Turtledove mentioned that after he wrote the story, he discovered there really was a kosher-qualifying pig - the Babirussa.

By Anthony Docimo (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Greeting folks, I'm from Indonesia. I am curious as to the statement that the Romans knew about babirusa. Did babirusa use to live in other parts of the world? I used to think they can only be found in Indonesia (Sulawesi is one of the 5 major island of Indonesian archipelago).

By banana man (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Given that Roman merchants regularly went to India, and that the Indians had contacts further east, and that the Romans liked to import exotic animals, it wouldn't be all that strange if they encountered captive babirusas, or even brought a few to Roman territory.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

Anthony, how can the babirusa qualify as kosher? Does it ruminate?

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

the name does sound Biblical

No, not at all... no resemblance to Hebrew that I can see.

Did babirusa use to live in other parts of the world?


By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

> Anthony, how can the babirusa qualify as kosher? Does it ruminate?

I guess its complex, multi-chambered stomach might have led to that suggestion.

the name does sound Biblical

No, not at all... no resemblance to Hebrew that I can see.

If you squint and distort some of the phonetics, you can sort of get it to fit as something vaguely Hebrew, or Aramaic.

It would be an effort, but there are pareidoliac linguists who think like that.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

For all who think Babirusa has anything to do with the middleastern languages, it is derived from 2 Indonesian words, which would place the word origin there, and partly in Portugal.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Thanks to Mr. Andreas Johansson and Mr. David Marjanovic for addressing my question.

In response to Mr. Tim Morris, indeed, the word babirusa is derived from 2 Indonesian words :

1) Babi : The Indonesian word for pig.

2) Rusa : The Indonesian word for deer.

By banana man (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

DDeden wrote:

Mud-covered tusks might alleviate cold temperature sensitivity, possibly mammoths and shovel tuskers in cold climates did that too? Yay babirusas!

I applaud the idea for its novelty and empathic approach!
(I know my teeth don't like too-cold air)..
But.. why only cover the front two tusks?
Investigation needed!