Researchers look for answers to difficult wild hog issues
For ranchers who struggle with invasive feral hogs tearing up their pastures and possibly spreading diseases, the scientific community is working on the problem. One of those scientists is Australian and wildlife biologist Raoul Boughton, who has been working at Archbold Biological Station in Venus since 2000. Boughton and Archbold are working in conjunction with researchers at the University of Florida to understand the behavior of feral hogs, an invasive species that was probably introduced by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Boughton, whose official title is program director of disease ecology, and his colleagues placed GPS collars onto 10 sows and 10 boars, then collected and analyzed the data. "We wanted to understand their home range, how far do they go, the intensity of use in their general areas," said Boughton.As many ranchers can attest, feral hogs can be hard to control because they are quite proficient at digging under fences. If ranchers start hunting them in a certain area, the smart pigs simply choose a different path. They are also well-known for digging up pasture areas with their powerful snouts. As a secondary area of study, Boughton and other researchers are looking at the negative effects of these rooting behaviors on grazing areas. A third consideration is how much feed the pigs may be consuming. Using cameras, researchers studied how often feral hogs visited feeding troughs. And they already have some answers: "Of the visits of cattle and swine to molasses, one-fifth of that, or 20 percent, are made by feral swine," Boughton stated. Ranchers might be surprised to learn that one in five visits to their molasses feeding troughs are made by wild pigs and not cows. For a rancher putting out hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of feed per year, that's a lot of stolen food. Boughton originally hails from the east coast of Australia, just south of Sydney. He started his career with a degree in environmental resource management and worked on the preservation of endangered species like the little tern, the long-nosed potoroo (a marsupial) and the eastern tiger quoll (another marsupial). Boughton grew up camping with his dad amongst animals like kangaroos, bandicoots and sugar gliders. Not many Australian animals will eat you, except maybe a crocodile, the father of two sons remarked. But he was always intrigued by potentially dangerous American wildlife like bears and wolves. "It's always been my dream to see them in the wild," he said. And he has. He also said Florida has some "amazing" wildlife. In 2000, Boughton came to the U.S. and Archbold to earn his Ph.D. in biology. His thesis involved the Florida scrub jay, a friendly little bird native to the Lakes Wales Ridge. Boughton was interested in the immune function of the birds and whether it was affected by stressful landscapes. He also looked at how these conditions affected the birds' fertility. His research spilled over into the area of equine health as well, since scrub jays harbor equine encephalitis and West Nile virus, both of which are deadly to horses. His research into disease ecology continues with studies into whether or not feral hogs are passing diseases to cattle and the potential risk of emergent pathogens that might develop from passing viruses back and forth between species (think bird flu). "Right now we are trying match exact DNA sequences of virus and bacteria potentially shared by both (feral hogs and cattle), trying to answer questions of transmission risk," Boughton said. Whenever dealing with wildlife of any type, Boughton stressed that the scientists take great care not to harm or even stress the animals. The hogs are caught in large, baited traps with a door that falls shut when the animals trip a wire. The animals are anesthetized while still in the cage, their collars are placed, and they are let go. With birds, Boughton said the handling is done very quickly. "Working on wildlife, we always try to make the wildlife as comfortable as possible," he said. The aim is to study the animals' behavior, not change it by frightening or stressing them. Boughton's wife, Betsey Boughton, is also a scientist, and the two work together on the feral hog project. Betsey is the director of research at the MacArthur Agro-Ecology Research Center (MAERC), a major division of Archbold. Betsey's focus in the feral hog project is on the impact of the hogs' behavior on the quality of pastureland. If the accent doesn't give it away that he's not from around here, perhaps Raoul's favorite past time will. Instead of hunting or fishing, he enjoys cycling and is a member of the Highlands Pedalers. "That's unusual for someone in the ag industry," he laughed.