Originally Published: December 31, 2017 6:03 a.m.
What Dante de Kort discovered
Members of the same javelina herd visited and slept next to the dead animal, spending more time during the night than daytime hours. They also pushed, nuzzled, smelled, and tried to pick up the animal by pushing their snouts underneath it. Coyotes arrived on the 10th day after death and were repeatedly chased away by the javelinas before returning later to successfully feed on the carcass.
An early birthday present in January 2017 opened Dante de Kort’s eyes to a world of life and death of javelinas, a science project, and his first publication in a scientific journal — all beginning as an 8-year-old student at Sacred Heart School in Prescott.
Dante, now 9, noticed back in January what he thought was a small group of javelina asleep under a tree. It turns out one of the javelina was dead. From the back deck of his home off Iron Springs Road, Dante watched how other javelina were staying close to the dead member. So he set up a motion-activated wildlife camera his grandmother had given as an early birthday present.
Originally, his idea for a science project was to document how long it would take coyotes to get to the dead animal. He thought the returning javelina were ruining the project by keeping predators away.
The family called the Arizona Game and Fish Department to find out how to dispose of the javelina, also known as a collared peccary, and were told they needed to take care of it themselves since it was on private property. So with the help of friends, Dante and his father, Martin de Kort, dragged the carcass uphill about 150 feet.
The new site didn’t stop the other javelina from visiting the body. The video camera, set up three days after the animal’s death, captured 101 10-second videos over the next two weeks.
Dante’s mother, Antonella de Kort, said they often see bobcats, mountain lion and raccoons in their yard in addition to javelina. The camera was a perfect gift from Dante’s grandmother, a biology teacher; his grandfather is a photographer. His older sister, Juliana, also comes up with interesting science projects, such as this year’s emergency room doctors’ reaction to a crying baby.
Dante’s third-grade science project questioned the actions of the javelinas as possible grieving behavior. Dante emailed three scientists who study dead animals, and got one response, “I have no idea.”
Dr. Mariana Altrichter, Prescott College professor and chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Peccary Specialist Group, was viewing her daughter’s project at the regional Science Fair, and came across Dante’s project. It piqued her interest and she contacted him.
Javelina facts from the Arizona Game and Fish Department
Javelinas (Pecari tajacu) originated in South America and are common in central and southern Arizona. They are active at night, but can be seen in daytime in cold weather. Adult sizes range from 40 to 60 pounds, and they stand about 19 inches tall. Young are born year round in an average litter of two. They live to be about 7.5 years.
They have poor eyesight, but a keen sense of smell. Primary source of food are plants, bulbs, birdseed, garbage and grubs. Javelina will occasionally bite humans, most always when people are providing food. DO NOT FEED JAVELINA. Removal of javelinas almost always results in the death of the animal.
Javelina may act defensively when cornered, to protect their young, or when they hear or smell a dog. Dogs, coyotes and mountain lions are natural predators of javelina, and they can seriously hurt or kill each other.
Javelina find shelter under porches, mobile homes, a crawlspace beneath a house, or any other cave-like area. (See video of javelina emerging from under a manufactured home in Prescott Valley at youtu.be/zG5HaBtwaPs.)
Javelina are classified as a big game species and are protected by state law. It is unlawful to kill or trap them. “If you do not want javelina in your yard, it is your responsibility to keep them out,” the AGFD website states.
“When we met, I wasn’t sure of the data; I didn’t think it would go very far,” Altrichter said this past week. “When I saw the videos, I thought, ‘This is really good. It could be considered scientifically sound.’”
Together, they analyzed the videos to determine percentages of time other javelina were present and the types of interaction they had with the body.
Peccaries are complex social animals and scientists have casually observed how members of a herd stay near their injured, captured or dead members. Dante’s study, as documented on video and still photographs, provides a look at the behavioral response to the death of a herd member over 10 days.
“It is unlikely that the behaviors here described are a result of coincidence. Furthermore, these particular individuals that most often visited the dead female could be genetically unrelated to her. This would coincide with observations for elephants that show generalized responses to death, not restricted to kin,” the study reported.
Dante is listed as lead author of “Collared peccary (Pecari tajacu) behavioral reactions toward a dead member of the herd” published in Ethology, the international journal of behavioral biology, Dec. 5 with Altrichter as co-author and two others from Argentina.
Altrichter said she was impressed with Dante’s curiosity that kept him observing the animals when most people would have stayed away because of the smell.
Since the article’s publication, Dante also has been featured on the National Geographic website, two news websites in the United Kingdom, IFL Science website, the Central Arizona Land Trust website, and TV news stations.
Altrichter said several people have approached her to say, “We’re getting a camera for the kids!”
“How great it is when children are excited and curious about the world outside of their homes, and outside of the screens. This story will, hopefully, inspire other children to explore the wonders of our natural world,” she said.