11 Things You Might Not Know About Pigs

iStock.com/t-lorien
iStock.com/t-lorien

Perhaps there's a reason pigs are a favorite of children and fairy tales alike—pigs are some of the most intelligent and social animals out there. In honor of this year's designation as Year of the Pig on the Chinese zodiac calendar, here are a few facts you may not know about these curly-tailed cuties.

1. Pigs were domesticated more than 9000 years ago.

Scientists estimate that pigs have been around for quite a long time. The omnivorous species is one of the oldest domesticated kinds of animals—behind only dogs and goats. Their wild ancestor is thought to be the Eurasian boar.

2. Pigs have very few sweat glands.

A pig in a mud puddle
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Think of a classic image of a pig—odds are, it's rolling around in the mud. On hot days, pigs like to wallow in mud not because they're dirty, but to cool off. Pigs' lack sweat glands that would otherwise release body heat, and their high body fat necessitates they find ways to not fry in the sun. The muck allows them to maintain their proper body temperature while also having some leisurely, wallowing self-care.

3. Pigs can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

Considering how long swine has been around, the reach of the world's pig species spans across the globe. Every continent has some population of pigs, boars, and hogs, with Antarctica the only exception.

4. Feral pigs cause more than $1 billion in damages annually in the U.S.

Wild boars walk across a field
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Your typical piglet doesn't evoke any sense of danger, but feral pigs—and a growing number of invasive pigs—are another story. Wild pigs cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage annually in the United States; their rooting for food can tear up farmland, trample crops and recreational areas, and push out other wildlife. Plus, they can carry disease risks that are more threatening to livestock and other domesticated animals, like dogs [PDF]. Pigs may not be trampling over city buildings like Godzilla, but their impact on agricultural land is widespread and significant.

5. There are more pigs in Denmark than humans.

Denmark has a larger population of pigs than human beings. Part of this has to do with its lucrative meat industry, with over 5000 pig farms producing around 28 million pigs, with 20 million being slaughtered each year. In contrast, Denmark's human population is 5 to 6 million people. The pig population is so valuable, in fact, that the country recently began building a $12 million wall to prevent wild boars (who could possibly carry African swine fever, a viral disease which is highly contagious and deadly to both wild and domestic pigs, but not humans) in neighboring Germany from invading Danish pig farms.

6. Pigs are video game pros.

Research at Penn State in the 1990s demonstrated that pigs, which are often perceived as being dirty and feeble-minded, have a remarkable aptitude for video games. The study showed that pigs are so smart that they were able to learn how to play a game involving a joystick better than chimpanzees and a Jack Russell terrier (a breed often used in movies because it is known for its intelligence and trainability).

7. Forty-six piglets were used to play the role of Wilbur in Charlotte's Web.

Wilbur, the main character in E.B. White’s timeless children's tale Charlotte's Web, is likely literature's most beloved pig. The 2006 movie adaptation of the same name seemingly knew as such and used 46 piglets to accurately portray the character on the big screen. Each and every one of the piglets was treated like Hollywood royalty: After filming wrapped, they were looked after and given new homes in Australia (where the film was shot). And, another pig from the movie also got a happy ending—the sow who played Wilbur's mother, who was later named Alice, went to live at an animal sanctuary with two of the piglets. Squeal!

8. Winston Churchill appreciated pigs.

Winston Churchill in London in 1922.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Winston Churchill is best remembered for his leadership as the prime minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. It's somewhat of a shame that, lost in his sea of memorable speeches and quotes, his wise view on pigs went a bit unnoticed. "I am fond of pigs," Churchill once said. "Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." In other words, dogs seek our approval, cats couldn't care less, but pigs, who are intelligent and sociable, are on more equal-footing with humans.

9. Some pigs know how to surf.

We told you pigs were smart. When they aren't playing barnyard bowling, basketball, or doing puzzles, sometimes they'll get their thrills from riding a wave. Hawaiian porcine celebrity Kamapua'a—otherwise known as Kama the Surfing Pig—goes boarding with his owner, Kai Holt, often enough that he has his surfing technique down. Kama's even good enough that he can take you out for a ride—via a GoPro, at least—and he's taught his piggie son, Kama 2, the ways of the Shaka life. Sounds like hog heaven.

10. Miss Piggy was originally named "Piggy Lee."

Miss Piggy attends a film premiere in 2011.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Kermit the Frog may have his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but his romantic interest, Miss Piggy, is an icon in her own right. But before the diva was fully realized, she went by a slightly different name. According to handwritten notes and Polaroids from Muppets creator Jim Henson, Miss Piggy was originally named Piggy Lee, a reference to famed jazz singer Peggy Lee.

"When I first created Miss Piggy I called her Miss Piggy Lee—as both a joke and an homage," Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson told Smithsonian in 2008. "Peggy Lee was a very independent woman, and Piggy certainly is the same." But, like many a starlet destined for the limelight, Piggy Lee needed her name to be more original. And also, "as Piggy's fame began to grow, nobody wanted to upset Peggy Lee," Erickson added, "especially because we admired her work."

11. The piggy bank originated from pygg pots.

A pink piggy bank
iStock.com/AnthiaCumming

As a kid, you saved all your spare change in one particular safekeeping storage item: the piggy bank. But of all the animals in the world, why did the pig get all of the glory?

In the 13th to 15th centuries, one of the most common places for people to store their money was in jars made of orange-colored clay called "pygg." As the English language evolved, that word eventually became pig or piggy. Whether by accident or design, around the 19th century manufacturers began molding little pots into the shape of pigs, and eventually piggy banks were all the rage. So next time you bring home a little extra bacon, you know where to put it.

Hundreds of Kangaroos Roam the Green at This Australian Golf Course

burroblando/iStock via Getty Images
burroblando/iStock via Getty Images

Anglesea Golf Club has all the makings of a regular golf club: an 18-hole golf course, a mini golf course, a driving range, a clubhouse, and a bistro. But the kangaroo mobs that hop around the holes add an element of surprise to your otherwise leisurely round of one of the slowest games in sports.

Person takes photo of a kangaroo
Anglesea Golf Club

According to Thrillist, the kangaroos have been a mainstay for years, and the club started giving tours a few years ago to ensure visitors could observe them in the safest way possible. For about 25 minutes, a volunteer tour guide will drive a golf cart with up to 14 passengers around the course, sharing fun facts about kangaroos and stopping at opportune locations for people to snap a few photos of the marsupials, which are most active in late afternoon and early morning. Kangaroos are friendly creatures, but Anglesea’s website reminds visitors that “they can also be quite aggressive if they feel threatened.”

Post-graduate students and academic staff from Melbourne University’s zoology department have been researching Anglesea’s kangaroo population since 2004, and some of the animals are marked with collar and ear tags so the researchers can track movement, growth, survival, and reproduction patterns throughout their life cycle.

One of the reasons kangaroos have continued to dwell on land so highly trafficked by people is because of the quality of the land itself, National Geographic reports. The golf course staff regularly sprinkles nitrogen fertilizer all over the green, which makes the grass especially healthy.

Kangaroos graze on Anglesea Golf Course
Anglesea Golf Club

If you decide to plan a trip to Anglesea Golf Club, you can book a kangaroo tour here—adult tickets are $8.50, and children under 12 can come along for just $3.50 each.

[h/t Thrillist]

10 Surprising Facts About Shoebill Storks

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

Shoebill storks have been called the world’s most terrifying bird (though the cassowary might disagree). These stately wading birds stalk the marshes of South Sudan, Uganda, and elsewhere in tropical East Africa, snatching up prey with their unique, immediately recognizable bills. But there are a lot of misconceptions about shoebill storks—the first being that they're not actually storks. Here are some more surprising facts.

1. Shoebill storks could win staring contests.

Shoebills live in the vast wetlands of the Nile watershed in eastern Africa. You really can’t mistake them for any other bird: They grow 4 to 5 feet tall, have bluish-gray plumage and an 8-plus-foot wingspan, and their bill, which takes up a majority of their face, looks like a huge Dutch wooden clog. Shoebills can stand virtually motionless for hours with their bills held down against their necks. Complemented by their golden eyes, the posture affects a very convincing death stare.

2. Shoebills may be more closely related to pelicans than storks.

Shoebill stork looking at the camera
ApuuliWorld/iStock via Getty Images

Over the past couple of centuries, naturalists have debated where shoebills should appear on the Tree of Life. Some taxonomists said that the shoebill's syrinx, or vocal organ, resembled those of herons belonging to the family Pelecaniformes, which also includes ibises, pelicans, and boobies. Others countered that herons have specialized feathers than release a powdery down to help with preening, but shoebills didn’t have these feathers, so they must be storks belonging to the family Ciconiiformes. “There is, in fact, not the shadow of a doubt that it is either a heron or a stork; but the question is, which?” zoologist Frank Evers Beddard wrote in 1905. More recent studies on the shoebill's eggshell structure and DNA have supported its place among the Pelecaniformes.

3. Shoebills poop on themselves.

Shoebills practice urohydrosis, the effective—if revolting—habit of defecating on their legs to lower their body temperature. In fact, this characteristic confused taxonomists: In the past, some felt that the shoebill’s habit placed it within the family of true storks, since all true storks also use their own droppings to cool off.

4. European naturalists were introduced to shoebills in the 1840s.

Shoebill stork
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

A German diplomat and explorer named Ferdinand Werne was the first European to hear about the shoebill. On his expedition in Africa to find the source of the White Nile in 1840, Werne camped at Lake No, part of a 12,000-square-mile wetland called the Sudd in what is now South Sudan. Werne’s indigenous guides told him “that they had seen an extraordinary bird, as big as a big camel, with a bill like a pelican’s, though wanting a pouch,” according to a 1908 edition of The Avicultural Magazine.

About 10 years later, a collector named Mansfield Parkyns brought two shoebill skins to England, giving British zoologists their first look at the weird bird. At an 1851 meeting of the British Zoological Society, naturalist John Gould presented a description of the shoebill based on Parkyns’s specimens and gave it the scientific name Balaeniceps rex.

5. Shoebills are also called whale-headed storks.

Balaeniceps rex means “whale-head king,” evidently a reference to its bill shape resembling the head of a baleen whale (as well as a shoe). Other names for the shoebill include the boat-bill, bog-bird, lesser lechwe-eater (referring to the shoebill’s alleged taste for lechwe, or aquatic antelope), and abu markub, or “father of a slipper” in Arabic.

6. Shoebills love lungfish.

Yum, lungfish! These air-breathing, eel-like fish grow to more than 6 feet long and comprise the shoebill’s favorite food. Shoebills also chow down on actual eels, catfish, lizards, snakes, and baby crocodiles. To catch their prey, shoebills stand still in the water and wait for an unsuspecting fish to appear. Then, the bird swiftly “collapses” on its target, spreading its wings and diving down bill-first to ambush the fish. Then, with the fish in its mouth, it decapitates it by grinding the sharp edges of its bill together.

7. Shoebills really earned their fierce reputation.

Victorian photographers learned the hard way that shoebills could be as mean as they looked. “The shoebill is capable of inflicting a very powerful bite,” 19th-century zoologist Stanley S. Flower wrote, “and is by no means a safe bird for a stranger ignorant of its ways to approach, a fact which we often have to impress on amateur photographers anxious to obtain ‘snap-shots’ of Balaeniceps at close quarters. It has been amusing to see how rapidly in some cases their enthusiasm has waned, when (as requested) confronted with the great bird screaming shrill defiance and crouching as if were about to spring, with gaping bill and half-spread wings.”

8. Shoebills have always been a rare curiosity at zoos.

Shoebill stork with its mouth open
neil bowman/iStock via Getty Images

In the 19th century, the Sudanese government made the shoebill a protected species, but that did not stop collectors from attempting to transport shoebills to zoos. Flower, then director of the Zoological Gardens in Giza, Egypt, brought three shoebills (along with four giraffes, nine antelopes, a lion, a leopard, three servals, two ostriches, two porcupines, an aardvark, five tortoises, a crocodile, and several other animals) on a train north from Khartoum to the gardens. The temperature rose to 118°F and the irritated shoebills barfed up their dinners. Their diet of fresh fish that Flower had ordered never materialized, so he resorted to feeding the birds canned shrimp. Miraculously, the birds arrived at the Zoological Gardens in one piece and survived in captivity for at least five years. Today, only a handful of zoos open to the public have shoebills, including the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic, Pairi Daiza in Belgium, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the Dallas World Aquarium.

9. Shoebills are worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

Shoebills rarely breed in captivity: In the last hundred years at least, only two chicks have hatched. In today’s zoos, all shoebills were either born there or were legally collected from the wild. Unfortunately, their scarcity and mystique have also made shoebills a sought-after bird for poachers in the illegal wildlife trade. According to Audubon magazine, private collectors in Dubai and Saudi Arabia will pay $10,000 or more for a live shoebill.

10. Shoebills are at risk of extinction.

The IUCN Redlist estimates between 3300 and 5300 mature shoebills live in the world today, and that number is decreasing. The iconic birds are threatened by a number of anthropogenic forces, including loss of their marshland habitat from farming, livestock ranching, oil and gas exploration, fires, pollution, and more. International wildlife groups and local conservationists are monitoring shoebill habitats in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia and patrolling the sites for poaching, but much more attention is needed to protect shoebills.

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