Nevertheless, this petrifying pig was an evolutionary success surviving for nearly 20 million years in eat-or-be-eaten prehistoric North America.
Hell pigs are not related to modern pigs; rather, they are closer on the evolutionary tree to hippos and whales. Yet, their bone structure is similar to that of modern pigs which accounts for the name “hell pig”.
Entelodonts were among the earliest pig-like lineages, known to have existed from the early to middle Eocene (c. 50 million years ago).
Entelodontidae first appeared in Mongolia, then spread across Asia, Europe and North America. They eventually became extinct between 19 million and 16 million years ago.
Comparison of a modern wild boar and a hell pig. Image credit: Beth Zaiken
In North America, hell pigs seem to have preferred floodplains as their habitat of choice. Woodlands were also preferred by many types of hell pigs.
One of the better-known entelodonts was Archaeotherium, common in western North America. They were large animals, several times the size of modern pigs, with the skull measuring more than 3 feet (1 meter).
“The dentition suggests they were effective bone-crushers. These surely were fierce, imposing animals . . . hence, the common name ‘hell pig,’” said Kenneth T. Wilkins, associate dean for sciences at Baylor University, Waco, Texas
In addition to growing larger than a modern bison, their most distinctive characteristic were their heavy, bony lumps on either side of their heads which are similar to a warthog’s. Some of these may have been attachment points for powerful jaw muscles as well as protection for their vulnerable eyes.
Many hell pigs had massive heads when compared to their bodies, one example being the Dinohyus. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, its head was 35 to 45 percent of its total length.
Large scars, up to 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) deep, found on the remains of hell pigs suggest they often fought with their own kind. Research also suggests they would even put each other’s head in their mouth during a fight, according to BBC Nature.
Based on the above, one could easily assume that such a fierce creature with large tusks and imposing body size was a carnivorous predator, but the hell pig’s teeth testify differently. They were more likely omnivores, consuming plants as well as meat.
The hell pig had large and pointed front teeth, perfect for ripping flesh from bones. The back teeth were flat, perfect for crushing plant material. Fruits, leaves and seeds, as well as other animals and eggs were probably all part of the hell pig’s diet.
But it may not even have been a killer after all. Some researchers believe hell pigs may have been scavengers, letting other animals make the kills. But once the prey was dead, the hell pig may have intimidated the predator and taken its prey, giving it a hell of a time.