Too many flashy nature documentaries with slow-mo predation scenes and all those overheated online forums devoted to predator-on-predator matchups can obscure a cold hard truth: Being a carnivore ain’t easy. Intense footage lately out of the Great Smoky Mountains in the southeastern U.S. underscores that fact, plus another one: Pigs sure are gritty.

We’re talking about a 10-plus-minute video captured in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on March 23 and posted by Old Skull Outdoors which shows an American black bear doing its darndest to kill a feral hog. The violent sequence – and, heads up, more sensitive viewers may want to skip this one – took place in a roadside ditch:

It was captured by a group of people headed back to Gatlinburg after touring the popular Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited national park in the U.S. and literally right on Gatlinburg’s doorstep. In a Yahoo! News article on the incident, Philip Talbot, who was part of the filming party, said they initially thought the two animals might be a mother black bear and her cub before they realised what was actually going on.

In the video, the bear repeatedly tears at the back of the hog’s neck (and the hog repeatedly squeals in response – good luck getting that sound out of your brain anytime soon) and tries several times to drag its victim up the steep wooded slope above the ditch. Eventually, the exhausted-looking bear – which seems increasingly aware of the burgeoning traffic jam of onlookers – heads uphill without its prize. The badly wounded hog remains in the ditch, and whatever eventually happened is unclear. (We hope for both animals’ sakes the bear was able to return and finish off the pig.)

Set along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains are one of the most massive ranges of the Southern Appalachians and include a number of the tallest peaks in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. The park is famed for its rugged relief, some of the most biodiverse temperate forests on Earth (a goodly portion of which are old-growth), and a very healthy population of black bears: some 1,500 of the ursids, according to the National Park Service.

Black bears are native to the Great Smokies; pigs are not. The feral hogs of the American Southeast – or “razorbacks” as they’re colloquially called in the U.S. – are invasive, exotic hybrids descended from crosses between Eurasian wild boar released in the 19th and early 20th centuries for hunting and food purposes and free-ranging domestic swine, which have been a part of the New World landscape since the 1600s. As in many parts of the world where non-native pigs roam free, razorbacks are ecologically destructive omnivores that bulldoze groundcover with their rooting and wallowing, decimate bird and reptile nests, and compete with native critters such as bears, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys for hard mast such as acorns and other forage.

wild-hog_2021-04-01.jpg
Wild hogs are invasive, ecologically destructive omnivores. Image © Craig ONeal

The Park Service attempts to control feral hogs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park by trapping and hunting, but it’s a tall order (as just about everywhere pigs are on the loose) given the smarts, resourcefulness, and fertility of the animals. And in the Southern Appalachians, a number of the native large carnivores that may have preyed on hogs, such as the puma (or cougar) and the red wolf, have been extirpated. (Rumours of “eastern cougars” still abound in the range, and increasing dispersal of pumas from the western U.S. into former eastern haunts may provide at least some hope that razorbacks will land on more wild menus in the future. Meanwhile, an attempt was made to reintroduce red wolves to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1990s, but it fizzled out. Before they were originally killed off, red wolves were apparently documented preying on hogs in the early years of the park.)

While bobcats, coyotes, and perhaps the odd raptor may take piglets or shoats, black bears are really the only non-human beast in the Great Smokies capable of preying on full-grown hogs at this point. (In other parts of the Southeast, American alligators – which, we kid you not, sometimes hack up hog hairballs – and Florida panthers, a regional form of puma restricted to South Florida, will hunt razorbacks; indeed, a long-term study on panther food habits in Southwest Florida found feral pigs were the most common prey item.)

Adult razorbacks, after all, are formidable: They commonly weigh 90 kilograms (200 lbs.) or more, and sometimes much more. (Anyone remember Hogzilla? Maybe not the half-ton monster it was originally touted to be, but still plenty big). Furthermore, they’re armed with sharp tusks, often travel in groups, and can be aggressive, especially when threatened (as any hog hunter will tell you).

Black bears – the males of which on rare occasion tip the scales past 363 kilograms (800 lbs.) – have indeed been documenting preying on feral hogs across age classes, but the jury’s a bit split on how frequently they’ll take on adult razorbacks. As the National Cooperative Extension notes, there are a few historical reports of hogs coming out on top in tussles with bears in the southern U.S. Regardless, bear predation on wild pigs is likely only occasional and opportunistic. 

Anne Hilborn, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California-Riverside who researches predator/prey dynamics and carnivore interactions, provided some commentary on the bear/hog video in a Twitter thread, noting first off she was impressed with the behaviour of the people who filmed it: Adults explained the stark reality of what was going on to at least one youngster, and meanwhile everybody stayed in the car.

“From the wildlife side,” she tweeted, “a thing the video shows really well is just how hard, exhausting, and time consuming it is to kill large prey. Even when you are large yourself, as the bear is, and have big teeth and claws.”

Dr. Corey Welch, a zoologist, contributed to Hilborn’s thread by noting that the neck’s just about the toughest and thickest part of a hog’s all-around tough and thick hide, hence the extended worrying of it the bear seemed forced to do. He also wondered whether the bear might have been on the younger side, and either way perhaps inexperienced in the whole hog-killing art.

The bear in question may not have been all that long out of its winter den, which in the Great Smokies are commonly set in cavities of big trees or standing snags, within the roots of windthrown trunks or stumps, or in caves and alcoves. Young bears and adult males are usually the first to emerge from their winter sleep (which may be punctuated by spells of activity), with female bears that have given birth to cubs in the den striking out last. This time of year is right around when most bears in the range have clocked in for the more active stretch of their calendar.

As Great Smoky Mountains National Park supervisory wildlife biologist Bill Stiver told the Knoxville News Sentinel, cramming in some calories is a top priority for these freshly emerged bears that have been living off fat reserves, and certainly a good-sized pig is an attractive package of calories, if not the easiest to procure. Stiver speculated that, given the location of the attack, the hog may have already been hampered before the bear chanced upon it.

“In this particular video,” he told the newspaper, “it is a little surprising that a bear could take an adult hog like that, and my instincts are the hog might have been hit by a car and injured. Bears will take advantage of those opportunities. We’ve seen it with wounded deer and elk.”

Stiver also emphasised the footage is a dramatic reminder that springtime visitors to the Great Smokies need to be bear-aware, as the mountains’ most famous four-legged resident is definitely back in action.

Top header image: Dan Hutcheson, Flickr