An Ossabaw hog at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.
|Other names||Ossabaw Island|
|Country of origin||Ossabaw Island USA|
The Ossabaw Island hog or Ossabaw Island is a breed of pig derived from a population of feral pigs on Ossabaw Island, Georgia, United States. The original Ossabaw hogs are descended from swine released on the island in the 16th century by Spanish explorers. A breeding population has been established on American farms off the island, but they remain a critically endangered variety of pig.
As the Spanish explored the coast of the Americas in the 16th century, livestock such as pigs were often left on islands as a future food source. This was the origin of the pigs that would become the Ossabaw breed. Over the following hundreds of years, the population of these feral pigs remained isolated on Ossabaw, which is one of the Sea Islands, barrier islands off the Georgia coast, and there was very little introduction of other domestic breeds. Since 1978 the island has been owned by the State and managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a preserve.
The human population of the island was never high, and the pigs generally ranged freely over its entire acreage. Like feral pigs elsewhere in the world, those on Ossabaw have had an adverse effect on native habitat and species. The pigs are highly omnivorous, and will consume everything from roots and tubers to small reptiles and mammals. Ossabaw hogs have even been observed feeding on white-tailed deer entrails.
Ossabaw Island hogs have been documented as having a negative impact on endangered species such as the loggerhead sea turtle and snowy plover, disturbing nests and eating eggs. This, plus the varied other impacts they have on the ecosystem, have convinced the Georgia DNR to recommend the eradication of feral swine via trapping, shooting and hunting by the public.
Aside from the environmental concerns posed by Ossabaw Island hogs, they are also recognized as a unique genetic resource by scientists and breed conservationists. They are thought to be the only U.S. breed which is descended from the Iberian-type pigs brought to North America by the Spanish. A very small breeding population of Ossabaw hogs are kept off the island by farmers who market them as a form of heritage pork, and there are also herds at several zoos, at Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, Conner Prairie Interactive History Park (Fishers, Indiana), and Barrington Living History Farm in Washington, Texas. Captive breeding populations were also previously kept by a few American universities for scientific study and conservation, but these herds were dissolved and have not contributed to the current bloodlines of Ossabaw hogs on the mainland today.
Both the island and mainland populations continue to be considered vulnerable by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), Slow Food USA, and others. The breed is listed as "critical" on the priority list of the ALBC, and is also included in Slow Food's Ark of Taste, a catalog of heritage foods in danger of extinction.
The population on the island is currently controlled by the methods advised by the DNR, and it is unclear how much longer the population will avoid eradication entirely. Due to the presence of vesicular stomatitis and pseudorabies on the island, no more live pigs may be removed from the island. The mainland U.S. population kept by farmers is preserved because of interest from the sustainable agriculture movement.
The breed characteristics of Ossabaw Island hogs in both phenotype and genotype have been shaped by the pressures of feral life in an island habitat. They are small swine, less than 20 inches (510 mm) tall and weighing less than 200 pounds (90 kg) at maturity. This size is partly due to the phenomenon of insular dwarfism, and individuals kept in off-island farms may grow slightly larger in successive generations. They are also hardy and very good foragers, making them useful in extensive farming (as opposed to intensive pig farming).
Ossabaw hogs appear in a wide range of colors, with the most common being black and a spotted variety. Ossabaw piglets do not show the striping that wild boars do, and because of their isolation on the island they are not hybridized, as the razorback may be. They additionally have long snouts, upright ears, and a heavy coat of bristles compared to other pig breeds. Ossabaws are noted to be intelligent and to have a friendly temperament.
As a result of life on an island where the abundance and scarcity of food is seasonally variable, Ossabaw hogs store fat in a different manner than most domestic pigs and have a "thrifty gene". In conditions with constant supplies of food (such as on farms and in the laboratory) they accrue more fat than other pigs and may develop a "prediabetes" condition. Because this trait makes them useful as a model organism, scientific studies on metabolic syndrome and Type II diabetes have been conducted on the Ossabaw hog. Ossabaw hogs also have adapted to the high salt diets and minimal availability of fresh water on the island.
The meat of Ossabaws is dark, with a unique texture, and is prized for resembling the jamón ibérico of the black Iberian pig. It is considered to be artisanal, heritage product especially well-suited to use in pork, cured meats, and whole pig roasts.
- ^ abcDohner, Janet Vorwald (2002). The encyclopedia of historic and endangered livestock and poultry breeds. Yale University Press. pp. 190–192. ISBN 978-0-300-08880-9.
- ^ abcdeEkarius, Carol (2008). Storey's Illustrated Breed Guide to Sheep, Goats, Cattle and Pigs. Storey Publishing. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-1-60342-036-5.
- ^ abcDepartment of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division (September 29, 2000). Ossabaw Island Comprehensive Management Plan(PDF).
- ^ abcNabhan, Gary Paul (2008). Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods. Chelsea Green Publishing. pp. 172–173. ISBN 978-1-933392-89-9.
- ^Mayer, John J.; Jr. I. Lehr Brisbin (2008). Wild Pigs in the United States: Their History, Comparative Morphology, and Current Status. University of Georgia Press. pp. 212–213. ISBN 978-0-8203-3137-9.
- ^ ab"Ossabaw Island Hog". albc-usa.org. American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
- ^ ab"Ossabaw Island Hog". Ark of Taste. Slow Food USA.
- ^Sturek, Michael; Mouhamad Alloosh; James Wenzel; James P. Byrd; Jason M. Edwards; Pamela G. Lloyd; Johnathan D. Tune; Keith L. March; Michael A. Miller; Eric A. Mokelke; I. Lehr Brisbin Jr (2007). "Chapter 18: Ossabaw Island Miniature Swine: Cardiometabolic Syndrome Assessment". In Swindle, M. Michael. Swine in the Laboratory: Surgery, Anesthesia, Imaging, and Experimental Techniques (2nd ed.). Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press. pp. 397–403. ISBN 978-0-8493-9278-8. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
- ^Zervanos, Stan M.; William D. McCort; H. B. Graves (Jan 1983). "Salt and Water Balance of Feral versus Domestic Hampshire Hogs". Physiological Zoology. 56 (1). JSTOR 30159967.
- ^Kaminsky, Peter (October 6, 2004). "On the Trail of Fine Ham: First, Plant an Acorn". The New York Times.
- ^Moskowitz, Dara (25–26 January 2007). "Heritage pork: A swanky swine to dine". USA Today. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
Young Ossabaws, the pigs Colonial Williamsburg chose for its rare breed program of animals to represent eigtheenth-century livestock.
At Great Hopes Plantation, Wayne Randolph feeds, cares for, and interprets the Ossabaws that arrive each year from Mount Vernon.
In the eighteenth century, Ossabaws were set free to forage in the woods around Williamsburg, often to the harm of crops on unfenced farm fields.
Ossabaw Island Pigs
Feral American Breed Provides 400-Year-Old Genetic Link between Past and Presentby Ed Crews
Pork-loving British North American colonists consumed nearly every part of the pig but its squeal. Eighteenth-century Virginians wolfed down bacon, chops, livers, hearts, and lungs, preserved the meat with salt and smoke, and, in the process, created a delicacy—the Virginia ham.
Because of the hog’s popularity, Colonial Williamsburg presents pigs in educational programs about 1700s animal husbandry and culinary practices. It uses Ossabaw Island pigs, an American feral species, which resemble their colonial counterparts.
“A number of historic sites want pigs that look like eighteenth-century pigs,” said Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds for the coach and livestock department. “Their hair was heavy because they lived outside, and they were dark and oval. Today, pigs are rectangular and pink.”
Ossabaw Island pigs have the look such places as Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg are after. Typically black, they also come in gray, tan, red, and, occasionally, white. They have thick coats, upright ears, and long snouts. In their natural habitat, they rarely exceed 20 inches in height or 100 pounds. Their demeanor is different from that of modern pigs.
“Pigs tend to respond to people. Humans tend to like pigs,” Shirley said. “They often will run over to anybody who calls: ‘Piggy, piggy, piggy.’”
Odds are good, though, that Ossabaw Island pigs will be more standoffish than the average twenty-first-century hogs. Biologists discovered that in their original habitat off the Georgia coast the creatures could be aggressive.
When guests see the hogs and talk to interpreters, they are sometimes surprised to learn how important pigs were to colonists. Hogs were among the first newcomers to the New World. They supplied protein for settlers’ diets and required relatively little attention. Farmers turned the animals loose in the woods to grow fat on native plants.
Hogs, however, could do ecological damage and were so ravenous that colonists fenced their gardens to try to protect them from porcine predators. Virginian Landon Carter wrote in 1774, however, that “they ever will trespass and really no fences can turn them.”
Virginians ate all sorts of pork products and exported them, too. Virginia hams found ready buyers in New England, throughout the Caribbean, and in Great Britain. By the late 1600s, Virginia hams were among the world’s best.
Colonial Williamsburg began using Ossabaw Island pigs in 2005. Every summer, Mount Vernon culls its herd to control its size and improve its stock, and sends about seven animals to Williamsburg. The new arrivals go into a pen at Great Hopes Plantation, where they are fattened. In the winter, they are slaughtered. The carcasses go to the Randolph Kitchen, where interpreters butcher the meat, prepare fresh dishes, and salt hams for preservation.
Colonial Williamsburg wants the breed to have more exposure, hoping that will help save the animals from extinction. For about 400 years, Ossabaws have flourished on their namesake Georgia home, a 25,056-acre island in the Atlantic about twenty miles south of Savannah. Historians believe Spanish explorers left the hogs there in the 1500s. The animals thrived in the island’s diverse ecosystem, a mixture of salt marshes, freshwater ponds, forest, sandy beaches, and dunes.
Humans have inhabited the island for 4,000 years. Native Americans were followed by Spanish missionaries, cotton planters, slaves, Civil War soldiers, freedmen, millionaires, and artists.
In the 1920s, the island attracted a wealthy couple—Dr. Henry Norton Torrey and his wife, Nell, of Detroit. They bought Ossabaw and built a mansion. Their home became a haven for such Americans as car baron Henry Ford. The Torreys’s daughter, Eleanor Torrey West, inherited the island and turned it into a retreat for artists and thinkers. When the United States’ economy boomed after World War II and East Coast beachfront land advanced spectacularly in price, she got purchase offers.
West rejected all bids. She decided to do all she could to protect Ossabaw from development. In 1977, she sold a purchase option to the Nature Conservancy of Georgia. The state of Georgia picked up the option in 1978, bought the site, and operates it as a nature preserve.
The protection does not guarantee the Ossabaw Island pigs’ survival. Their feeding habits threaten other wildlife, especially loggerhead turtles. Nobody is sure how to solve the problem. Quarantined to protect domesticated animals, the hogs cannot simply be moved to the mainland. The Ossabaws that are off the island were sent away years ago, before restrictions applied. Some favor eradicating the pigs. For the time being, controlled hunts keep the island’s pig herd at a manageable size.
Aspects of the pigs’ adaptations to their island habitat fascinate scientists. For example, Ossabaw Island females have reduced ovulation rates. Regardless of sex, all the pigs’ kidneys can tolerate high levels of saltwater. Otherwise healthy, all Ossabaws have low-grade diabetes. And, perhaps most intriguing, all can store more fat than any other hog. That allows the animals to feed during times of plenty, and to survive during times of want. Researchers studying diabetes, growth hormones, fat storage, and obesity are interested in Ossabaw Island pigs.
“These pigs are a feral breed,” Shirley said. “Being feral, they have been shaped almost exclusively by natural selection. Europe does not have feral breeds, but the United States does because it had a frontier. Feral animals are a reservoir of genetic information. They are hardy and can survive without help.
“Their value is that, to a certain extent, we’ve gotten rid of certain animal features through commercial farming and breeding. But someday we may need the qualities that have been lost. Protecting animals, like the Ossabaw Island hogs, ensures genetic diversity.”
Ed Crews, a Richmond-based writer, contributed to the spring 2009 journal an article on Colonial Williamsburg’s working carts and wagons.
Jump to Top