Feral pigs are adaptable and smart. They eat almost anything, and they reproduce quickly and prolifically.

“I don't know if I would compare them directly to rats, but they are pests,” said Jim Beasley, an assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

There are approximately 150,000 feral pigs in South Carolina, and they live in every county.

Several thousand roam the Savannah River Site, where the Ecology Lab is located.

“They're a growing problem, and, at the moment, they're not going away,” said Beasley, who has a doctorate in wildlife ecology.

Beasley and his Ecology Lab colleagues are collaborating with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and National Wildlife Research Center to learn more about feral pigs and how to control them.

They're putting radio transmitters on the pigs to monitor their movements. They're also trying to find out what types of wild animals eat dead pigs.

Soon, they'll begin testing how well various pig trapping techniques work.

“People have been doing pig research at the Savannah River Site for decades,” Beasley said.

But the feeling of urgency has grown because, since the 1980s, feral pigs have been showing up in more and more places.

“There has been a lot more movement of pigs by humans recently,” Beasley said. “They are a sport hunting animal, and some people want them around. They trap the pigs and move them to their property or someone else's property. That's creating new epicenters that the pigs can spread out from.”

The expansion of their territory isn't good news because feral pigs can wreak all sorts of havoc.

“It is estimated that feral pigs cause about $1.5 billion in damage to crops and the environment every year in the United States,” Beasley said.

In addition to eating cultivated plants, feral pigs destroy fences and cause erosion by digging in the dirt with their snouts, he said. Sometimes they kill and eat small newborn livestock, such as lambs.

In the wild, feral pigs devour the eggs of sea turtles and birds that nest on the ground. They also destroy native plant communities.

In addition, feral pigs carry and/or transmit a variety of diseases, including swine brucellosis, pseudorabies and trichinosis.

“Feral pigs are not native to the Western Hemisphere,” Beasley said. “They were originally brought to the Americas in the 1500s, primarily for domestication. Those pigs escaped occasionally and some were let go on purpose. Then, in the early 1900s, people brought Eurasian boars here for hunting purposes.”

The escaped and released domestic pigs and the Eurasian boars interbred, producing hardy hybrids that proved difficult to eradicate.

“Pigs can become reproductively active at less than a year of age.” Beasley said. “The females are able to produce two litters a year, with several pigs in each litter, so a small number of animals can populate or repopulate an area fairly rapidly. When you start to hunt them or persecute them, they can get very secretive and change their behavior, which makes them hard to monitor and control. They're one of the most adaptable animals around.”

Feral pigs also are big.

“There have been pigs in this area that have weighed more than 400 pounds,” Beasley said. “Most are 200 pounds or less, but that's still quite a large animal. Most of the time they will run away from you. But pig attacks on humans have been known to happen.”

At the Savannah River Site, traffic accidents caused by feral pigs are on the rise.

“People have been hitting 30 to 40 pigs a year just on this place alone, and the number is slowly growing,” Beasley said. “Twenty-five percent of the collisions with pigs involve more than one animal because pigs tend to travel in groups. If you hit two pigs with a Honda Civic, there can be a lot of damage. We're doing research to figure out where the collisions with the pigs are occurring so we will be better able to mitigate those problems.”

Dede Biles is a reporter for the Aiken Standard.

She has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.