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29-APR-2021 - The pygmy hog is the world's smallest and most threatened pig species. It occurs in only a small area in India, hidden between tall grasses. A breeding programme, as well as scientific research conducted, provide insights into how the species can be best protected. Biologists summarize the species knowledge in a small 'quick guide', which was recently published in the journal Current Biology.
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Pygmy hogs (Porcula salvania) are critically endangered. They live in India, in an area which is also inhabited by larger herbivores such as rhinos and elephants. Manon de Visser, biologist at the University of Leiden and Naturalis Biodiversity Center, explains: “Pygmy hogs are also called the ‘underhogs’ of their area, because generally they receive less support and attention than for instance the more majestic elephants or rhinos. The little creatures are less than half a meter high, weigh ten times less than the average wild boar, and are hard to observe in the wild, as they hide in between tall grasses within their habitat, which can sometimes grow up to a height of eight meters. Still, like all organisms, they play an important role within their ecosystem.”      

A visualization of an adult pygmy hog compared to an adult wild boar (Sus scrofa)    
To save the pygmy hog from becoming extinct, the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) in India has been dedicated to breeding, raising, and reintroducing this species for 25 years already. Years ago, the PHCP decided to collaborate with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and shared the genomic data of six pygmy hogs for scientific purposes. Manon was one of the first researchers to analyze this DNA dataset throughout her master’s programme. This formed a basis for overarching studies by the WUR research group ‘Animal Breeding and Genomics’, that ultimately led to scientific publications in, for instance, Evolutionary Applications and Nature Communications.    

Because not many people know about the existence of pygmy hogs, Manon together with WUR colleagues Dr. Mirte Bosse and Dr. Langqing Liu, decided to put the species into the spotlight by writing a ‘quick guide’, which was recently published in the journal Current Biology.       

Manon: “I’ve learned a lot about conducting DNA research thanks to my WUR colleagues and of course the pygmy hogs. The knowledge that I gained at WUR I now apply during my PhD research, where I focus on the DNA of amphibians. For me, the pygmy hogs are therefore out of sight, but never out of mind. Actually, they are not completely out of sight either.... Namely, the only prepared pygmy hog specimen of the Netherlands is located in the Naturalis collection, behind the scenes. How amazing is that?”          

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Text: Manon de Visser, Naturalis Biodiversity Center
Leadphoto: Pepijn Kamminga (the taxidermied pygmy hog at Naturalis)
Drawing: Bas Blankevoort