Museum Object of the Month (February 2019)
North Sulawesi Babirusa
This month’s highlight takes its inspiration from the Chinese New Year’s celebration of the year of the pig. This mammal in our World Wildlife Gallery is a wild member of the pig family and comes from south Asia, most-commonly found in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. The name babirusa in Indonesian Malay means ‘Pig-deer’. Babirusas probably get the name ‘pig-deer’ from the male’s unusual curving upper canines, which look like antlers, and their thin deer-like legs.
One hypothesis as to the purpose of babirusa’s tusks is for their use in combat, with the upper tusks for defense and the lower tusks for weapons. However, reports of babirusas fighting actually describe them as going up onto their hind legs and using their front hooves to kick their opponent instead. Consequently, the purpose of their ostentatious tusk display is still a mystery. Regular wear of the tusks is desirable for the babirusa, as otherwise the tusks keep growing and eventually grow back into the animal’s own skull.
The babirusa has an omnivorous diet much like the domestic pig. However, unlike the domestic pig, babirusas have a complex two-chambered stomach, more similar to that of a sheep. Furthermore, a babirusa’s snout does not have a rostral bone like a domestic pig, meaning they cannot easily dig with their snout, only succeeding in marshy ground. Until 2002, all babirusa belonged to the same species, B. babyrussa. However, differences in body, skull and teeth sizes, alongside the amount of body hair present, led to the split up of ‘babirusa’ into four species. The animal is described as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List which means it has a decreasing population trend: mainly due to the threat of habitat loss.
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