Porcupines may seem like slow-moving and unremarkable creatures, but their unique defense mechanism has made them famous around the world. Get ready to discover some surprising and interesting facts about porcupines that will leave you intrigued.
1. There’re 2 “worlds” of porcupines
Porcupines, which belong to the same order as mice, rats, and beavers, are sizable rodents. Their highlighted characteristic is a unique coat of protective quills. Their hair can range in color from brownish-yellow to black. With a robust body and a rounded head that resembles a pig’s, they are easily identifiable.
This family is divided into two groups: the Old World porcupines (Hystricidae) and the New World porcupines (Erethizontidae). Despite their shared name, the two families are unrelated.
The Erethizontidae family comprises the New World porcupines, which exhibit a dark brown to black coloration. These animals possess quills with distinctive white markings that provide a warning to predators, including those that are color-blind, about their potential danger.
The quills of these species are interspersed among the animal’s underfur, bristles, and guard hairs. They are distributed across their back, legs, and tail. Unlike Old World porcupines, the quills of New World species do not form clusters and tend to be shorter in length.
Except for the North American porcupine, most porcupines in the New World are smaller. The North American has a length of approximately 3 feet (90 cm) and a weight of 30 pounds (14 kg). This creature is also the largest rodent found in North America.
The family Hystricidae includes Old World porcupines. As we mentioned above, the quills of these species are gathered in clusters and not mixed with various types of hairs. When the porcupine’s long quills are erect, it can appear two to three times larger than its actual size.
Their back and rear possess short, thick quills. The base of their tail has hollow quills that create a rattling sound when they move, warning potential predators.
The “short-tailed porcupines” are members of this family, some of which have a size of over 3.3 feet (1 m) in length and weigh up to 66 pounds (30 kilograms). The cape porcupine is the largest of all porcupine species. Meanwhile, the long-tailed porcupine (Trichys fasciculata), which resembles a spiny rat, is the smallest of the Old World porcupines, measuring just 19 inches (48.3 cm) in length.
2. Hedgehog vs Porcupins
These two creatures are not the same. Despite the prickly look of both species, porcupines are not related to hedgehogs. While the hedgehog belongs to the order Eulipotyphla, the other is a member of the order Rodenti. They still have differences.
|Difference between hedgehog and porcupine|
|Quills||Longer, can grow up to 3 inches||Shorter, about 1 inch|
|Defend mechanism||Erect quills, wave tail, emit odors or create sounds||To defend itself, the hedgehog rolls into a ball|
|Diet||Mostly plants||Eating insects and plants|
|Behavior||Do not hibernate||Hibernate|
While all other species of New World porcupines live in tropical forests throughout Mexico and South America, the North American inhabits parts of Alaska and Canada. These creatures can be found in temperate forests and shrublands where they live both in trees and on the ground. It is the sole porcupine species in the USA and Canada.
Old World porcupines, on the other hand, live throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. They live in a variety of environments, including pastures, forests, deserts, and rocky areas. The largest African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata) has a range from North Africa to sub-Saharan Africa to Italy. It typically inhabits hilly and rocky terrains.
4. They are excellent swimmers
Old World porcupines are primarily nocturnal, while New World species can be active during both day and night. Old World species typically dwell on the ground, whereas New World creatures tend to live in trees.
As arboreal creatures, New World species are adept climbers and often spend their time resting in trees. Their feet have pebbly soles, similar in texture to a basketball, which aids in their climbing ability. Some species also possess muscular tails that assist in climbing.
When not in trees, they seek refuge in dens located in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, or even under man-made structures such as houses or barns.
Porcupines from both the Old World and New World families exhibit impressive swimming abilities. Some species use the air-filled quills on their backs to increase buoyancy, essentially acting as a permanent life jacket, while they propel themselves forward using a dog-paddle-like stroke.
These solitary animals are not particularly social and tend to spend the majority of their time alone. Unlike many other animals, these creatures do not hibernate and instead devote much of their time to foraging for food and occasionally nesting in tree branches.
Although the North American is nearsighted and sluggish with a maximum speed of only 2 mph for short distances. It is even slower than squirrels’ 20 mph and deer’s 30 mph. However, they compensate with an excellent sense of smell.
Porcupines have a herbivorous diet that varies with the seasons. During winter, they primarily consume evergreen needles and inner bark from trees such as fir, pine, hemlock, cherry, birch, maple, elm, oak, willow, and beech, as well as woody shrubs. These animals may cause damage or death to a single tree due to their heavy feeding.
As the seasons change and spring and summer arrive, these rodents switch to a different diet and eat leaves, fruits, seeds, buds, berries, stems, grasses, nuts, and roots.
They even chew on bones to keep their teeth sharp and acquire minerals. Additionally, certain Old World porcupines may include insects and small vertebrates, such as lizards, in their otherwise herbivorous diet on occasion.
New World porcupines face predation from a variety of animals such as fishers, bobcats, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, eagles, coyotes, and great-horned owls. On the other hand, predators of Old World species are often caracals, hyenas, dholes, leopards, and lions. Moreover, in some regions, humans hunt them for their meat.
6. They’re covered with 30,000 Quills
The standout characteristic of porcupines is undoubtedly their quills – modified hairs that are buried in the skin’s muscles. Interestingly, these quills are made of the same keratin substance that forms our nails.
With a length of 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7 centimeters), these hollow quills are loosely attached, allowing them to come off easily. Each species is adorned with approximately 30,000 quills. What’s amazing is that the quills contain powerful natural antibiotics that can effectively impede the growth of various gram-positive types of bacteria.
The quills of porcupines have probably been medicated as a safety measure to protect the animals since they can accidentally hurt themselves in various situations like falling out of trees. By coating their quills with antibiotics, the damage caused by such incidents could be minimized.
These quills also serve as a defense mechanism against predators. When threatened, the animal will first raise its quills as a warning. If this doesn’t work, it will turn around and attack the predator. It also uses its tails, covered in quills, to defend itself from predators by striking them like a mace.
It is commonly believed that porcupines can shoot their quills like projectiles, but this is a myth. However, if a predator comes into contact with a porcupine’s quills, the quills may detach and get stuck in the predator’s skin. As they penetrate the predator’s skin, the quills gradually work their way deeper.
These quills are not poisonous. However, they have a sharp, barbed tip that makes them challenging to remove, and they can cause infection or even death. Their lost quills will grow back to replace those that are lost.
Although quills provide an effective defense, they may not be sufficient to safeguard the animals from all predators. For instance, fishers have learned how to overturn North American porcupines, leaving their vulnerable underbellies exposed.
That’s why these rodents also have a few defense mechanisms besides the quills. To protect themselves, some produce a repugnant scent, the others create chattering noise with their teeth.
Porcupines seldom attack humans unless they feel threatened. Their quills can kill you, as they can transmit diseases like rabies which can result in death within days if left untreated.
They are also dangerous with small pets like cats and dogs. These spiky animals may contract diseases that can be deadly. Additionally, if their quills penetrate deep into the skin, it can lead to severe infections that may prove fatal.
The mating season of these creatures starts in autumn and early winter. They perform an intricate mating ritual that includes a dance and a variety of vocalizations such as grunting, shrieks, clicking teeth, moaning, wails, whining, and siren-like screams. Multiple males may fight for the female. Before mating, the male will shower the female with urine.
Following mating, the female will go through a gestation period from 16 to 31 weeks, depending on the species. Their reproductive period, which occurs only once a year for 8-12 hours, is the shortest among all rodents. In the spring or early summer, the female will give birth to only an offspring called porcupette. A mother and her young form a family group known as a “prickle”.
The porcupette is a unique creature with fascinating traits. The eyes of the newborn are already open. Its quills are initially soft and pliable, but begin to harden within a few hours to several days after birth. As they grow, they mature quickly, with some species becoming independent after only a few months.
These young reach maturity between 9 months and 2.5 years old. Despite being rodents, which typically have short lifespans, porcupines are known for their impressive longevity. In the wild, they can live up to 18 years, while in captivity, their lifespan can be about 20 years or more.
The North American has a lifespan of up to 23 years, while the prehensile-tailed porcupine in South America can live up to 27 years. In fact, some Old World species have a maximum lifespan of 27 to 28 years, surpassing even the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, which typically lives for up to 15 years.
These creatures face a significant threat from human overhunting, which is considered one of the primary dangers to their survival. Their quills are used as ornaments and good luck charms in Africa. They are also hunted illegally for traditional medicine in North Africa and for their meat in some regions of this continent.
Moreover, porcupines are considered severe agricultural pests, leading to their persecution by humans. Nonetheless, porcupines are commercially farmed as well.