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Ossabaw Island Hog
The Ossabaw pig breed is unusual and important for three reasons. Its history as an isolated island population has meant that the Ossabaw is the closest genetic representative of historic stocks brought over by the Spanish. Second, the presence of pigs on Ossabaw Island provides scientists with an exceptional opportunity to study a long-term feral population, which is well documented. Third, the Ossabaw breed is biologically unique, having been shaped by natural selection in a challenging environment known for heat, humidity, and seasonal scarcity of food. Ossabaw hogs may be as small as 100 pounds, but they are able to store astounding amounts of body fat in order to survive during the seasons when there is little to eat. This biochemical adaptation is similar to non insulin dependent diabetes in humans, making the pigs a natural animal model for this disease. The pigs are also highly tolerant of dietary salt. It has been found that Ossabaw hogs, once removed from the selective pressures of their island home, begin to lose some of their unique survival adaptations in generations bred and kept in captive environments.
Ossabaw hogs are usually black, although some are black with white spots or light with black spots. True Ossabaws do not produce the striped piglets typical of feral hog populations that have had Wild Boar introductions. Adult pigs are very hairy with heavy bristles on the head neck and topline. The frayed tips of the bristles, a primitive characteristic, are another indication of the distinctiveness of the population. Their snouts are long and slightly dished. Heads and shoulders of the hogs are heavy, and while they seem out of proportion to the rest of the body, that impression belies the speed and agility of these animals in the dense undergrowth of the island.
Though pigs have lived on Ossabaw for several centuries, they do have an impact on the island’s ecology. Environmentalists became concerned, and some have proposed extermination of the pig population. The island has passed from private hands to the state of Georgia, and the pigs may or may not be allowed to remain, depending upon the state’s ability to manage what is considered an ecologically appropriate number of animals. Currently, hunting controls the size of the population, and this practice has its proponents and detractors. A further complication in the breed’s conservation is the discovery that some pigs on the island test positive for porcine vesicular stomatitis (PSV) and pseudorabies. Though these results only indicate exposure to the disease, pigs may no longer be removed from the island or cross state lines. Thus, the fate of the breed now rests upon the complex questions of how it will be managed in its habitat without having a negative impact on the island’s ecology. A few populations of Ossabaw pigs have been established on the mainland, and interest in the breed continues to grow as production niches are being explored for the breed. They are found to be particularly well suited for sustainable or pastured pork production.