Hawaii's Feral Pig Ancestors Predate Captain Cook

Pigs overrunning Hawaii today arrived on the islands much earlier than thought, according to a new DNA analysis.

The family tree of Hawaii's feral pigs (Sus scrofa) looks a bit different today, after a new DNA analysis resets their arrival on the islands to several hundred years earlier than previously thought. More than just an interesting genealogy rewrite, the news could also be relevant to efforts to control the animals.

Writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science, an international team of researchers argues that Hawaii's hogs, previously thought to have arrived on the islands with English explorer James Cook in 1778, were brought there hundreds of years earlier by Polynesian settlers who would come to live there.

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The scientists reached that conclusion after studying the DNA of more than four-dozen feral pigs, an analysis that told them the pigs arrived on the islands as much as 800 years earlier.

Researchers from more than half a dozen research facilities contributed to the study, among them lead author Anna Linderholm, Texas A&M assistant professor of anthropology.

"[Cook] almost certainly brought pigs, chickens and other animals with him," said Linderholm in a statement. "But our findings show that the wild hogs there today were introduced much earlier than his arrival, by hundreds of years at least. They likely came from European or Asian descent."

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That conclusion could end up helping the hogs.

Hawaii has a sizable wild pig problem at present. The islands are overrun with thousands of up-to-400-pound feral hogs, which have been called "the most prolific large mammal on the face of the Earth" and ruin native plants as well as planted crops. Owning a home or farm in their path can be costly, and this has brought about talk of methods to get the problem under control.

However, the researchers note, pigs hold a special place in Hawaiian culture, with its Polynesian roots, and they urge caution moving forward.

"The ancestry of feral hogs in Hawaii today can be traced back to Polynesians, and their colorful island history and legends are embedded in the state's culture and many traditions," said Linderholm.

"The lineage of these wild hogs is part of the state's rich past," she added, "so management of these wild hogs will take considerable thought and careful planning."