Porcupine

The name “porcupine” comes from the Middle French word porch’ pine meaning “thorny pork.” Hence, the nickname/ Latin name of “quill pig” for the animal. The rounded, large and slow animal belongs to both species of Hystricidae (Old World Porcupine) and Erethizontade (New World Porcupine).

A study from National Geographic Wild has proven the porcupine to be the heaviest, prickliest of all African rodents and the third-largest living rodent in the world after the Capybara and Beaver. The largest recorded porcupine is the North African crested porcupine, while the smallest is the Bahia hairy dwarf porcupine.

There are more than two dozen recorded porcupine species in the world. They all have short, stocky legs with their tail ranging from short to long and some prehensile.

A distinct feature of the porcupine, its quill, has long been a favorite ornament and good-luck charm in Africa. Its hollow rattle served as musical instruments once used as containers for gold chests.

Table of Contents

Scientific Classification

DomainEukaryota
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderRodentia
SuborderHystricomorpha
InfraorderHystricognath
Scientific nameErethizon dorsatum

Description

Porcupine, often confused with the hedgehog, is a large terrestrial rodent with a rounded head, small eyes, and ears. It also has a blunt muzzle and short, sturdy five-toed powerful clawed legs. It is about 60 – 90 centimeters long with a body mass of 5 – 16 kilograms and a long tail of 20 – 25 centimeters.

The porcupine is an anti-social creature that possesses a high adaptive nature and strictly nocturnal. They are occasionally active during daylight and are known to sleep mostly during the day.

It shares a physical resemblance to cane rats, dassie rats, and African mole rats. The skin color ranges from colors like brown, grey, and white. It also has a coat of sharp and pointy quills on its back that measures up to 30 centimeters long and 2 millimeters wide. This rodent uses these quills to protect itself against predators.

Old world porcupines are primarily terrestrial with long tail, black and white band quill of 20 centimeters, and largely shaped like an elongated stemmed goblet. They find shelter in tree roots, hollow trunks, rocky crevices, termite mounds, caves, and abandoned burrows.

New world porcupines are arboreal with small barbs on their quill measuring about 10 centimeters. It also has long curved claws and long muscular tail curls upward and twists around trees mostly found living in tropical forests.

Both old and new world porcupines are typically solitary. They like to set up homes in burrows. Male porcupines are considered to grow significantly larger than female porcupine occasionally.

Distribution

Porcupine can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Old World porcupines occupy parts of Southern Europe, Asia (Western and Southern), and most of Africa. Examples include the North African crested porcupine, African brush-tailed porcupine, and Indian crested porcupine.

New world porcupines are native to North America and Northern South America. Examples include the Canadian porcupine, Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine, and the Brazilian porcupine.

Diet

Porcupines are herbivores that mostly feed on vegetation. They have a great sense of smell; hence locating their meal is easy. During spring and summer, the porcupine’s diet usually includes leaves, flowers, stems, roots, seeds, berries, nuts, twigs, and buds.

In winter, the cambium layer, evergreen needles, and the inner tree barks become an essential food source for the thorned rodent. They are also fond of cultivated root crops such as cassava, potatoes, carrots, and, at other times, feed on carrion such as bugs and small lizards.

They often chew on bones and antlers to sharpen their teeth and derive mineral nutrients such as salt and calcium, and also canoe paddles.

Habitat

Porcupines are most common in hilly and rocky countries. They occupy a small range of habitats in tropical and temperate parts of Asia, Southern Europe, Africa, North and South America.

They are generally known to inhabit forests and deserts, rocky outcrops and hillsides, grasslands, mountains, rainforest, and dens in tree branches or tangles of roots, rock crevices, bushes, or logs.

Porcupines living in the coniferous forest (old world porcupines) spend much more time on the ground than those living in deciduous and mixed forests. Those living in deciduous and mixed forests (new world porcupines) are more often seen in the trees to source food.

Behavior

Porcupines possess a benevolent disposition, and unless provoked to defend themselves, they cause no real harm. Old world porcupines are known to climb trees and shrubs for shelter. They can move swiftly over the ground, climb, jump, and are excellent swimmers. During storms and cold climate conditions, they retreat to their dens but do not hibernate.

New world porcupines, on the other hand, are considered to rest during the day in the hollow trees or crouch on branches or in tangles of woody vines and mostly eat fruits at night. They move slowly and are unable to jump, so they must descend on the ground to cross gaps between trees.

 Porcupines adopt the aposematic attack strategy when they feel threatened by predators. In response, they usually stamp their feet, click their teeth, growl or hiss while vibrating specialized quills.

These quills produce characteristic rattle to communicate with others to warn off predators such as Lynx, Bobcats, Coyotes, Wolves, Great horned owls, Mountain lions, Mortens, Pythons, Leopards, and Fishers.

Other times, the rattle occurs during mating season. This rattle only occurs when the tail is shaken and quills strike each other. No porcupine can throw its quill but can easily detach it during an attack.

Mating and breeding

Porcupines can travel outside their home range in pursuit of a mate. Males vie for a female mate during noisy battles. After the battle, the victor whines and stomps his tail at his lady to impress her. If she seems interested, he sprays her with urine as a signal to lower her quills and move her barbed tail to the side for mating.

Baby porcupines are called porcupettes. A mother porcupine and her young is considered a family called “Prickle.” Females are known to give birth in the comfort of their homes.

Old world porcupine has been studied to carry their young for a gestation period of approximately 100 days. New world porcupines carry their young for a gestation period of 280 days. Female porcupine usually bears between one and four young, depending on the species.

Porcupettes are about 3 percent of their mother’s weight at birth, according to a study at the San Diego zoo. Porcupettes are usually born with open eyes and soft quills made of hardened hair that protects the mother from injury during childbirth.

Baby porcupines are quite playful as they frequently run after each other or make friendly attacks on other animals. Porcupettes mature between a month to 2.5 years depending on species and can live up to 15 years in the wild.

Most young are ready to live on their own at about two months of age. A matured porcupette has quills as sharp as needles that can be removed very easily by itself. This quill is usually very hard and painful to pull out when thrown and can stay stuck in the skin of attackers.

Life expectancy

The average life expectancy of a porcupine differs depending on its habitat. A North American porcupine has been studied to have a life expectancy of 5 to 7 years.

An African porcupine has a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years. In captivity, porcupines generally can survive up to 10 years and sometimes 20 years.

Human relationship

The rise in and expansion of the human population has made humans and porcupines find themselves in increasingly close quarters. Porcupines have been characterized as an agricultural pest due to their feeding habits.

They are usually hunted from their burrows, basically for their quills and meat by humans using spears, nets, or dogs. Animals that prey on the porcupine have been known to die because of quill penetration and infections, as porcupine quill can still penetrate animals and humans even after death.

Conservation status

Despite their extended gestation period and slow reproductive rate— not to mention humans threats—porcupines are classified as “stable” and “least concern” by the IUCN “International Union for Conservation of Nature.”

Porcupine
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