Porcupine

Porcupines are rodents with a coat of sharp spines, or quills, that protect against predators. The term covers two families of animals, the Old World porcupines and New World porcupines. Both families belong to theHystricognathi branch of the vast order Rodentia and display similar coats of quills, but they still are quite different and are not closely related.

The Old World porcupines live in southern Europe, Asia (western as well as southern), and most of Africa. They are large, terrestrial, and strictly nocturnal. In taxonomic terms, they form the family Hystricidae.

The New World porcupines are indigenous to North America and northern South America. They live in wooded areas and can climb trees, where some species spend their entire lives. They are less strictly nocturnal than their Old World relatives, and generally smaller. In taxonomic terms, they form the family Erethizontidae.

Porcupines are the third-largest of the rodents, behind the capybara and the beaver. Most porcupines are about 25–36 in (64–91 cm) long, with an 8–10 in (20–25 cm) long tail. Weighing 12–35 lb (5.4–15.9 kg), they are rounded, large, and slow. Porcupines occur in various shades of brown, gray, and white. Porcupines’ spiny protection resembles that of the unrelated erinaceomorph hedgehogs and Australian spiny anteaters or monotreme echidnas.

Etymology

The name “porcupine” comes from Latin porcus pig + spina spine, quill, via Old Italian—Middle French—Middle English. A regional American name for the animal is quill pig. Similarly, the German name, Stachelschwein, means “thorn-swine”.

Evolution

Fossils belonging to the Hystrix genus date back to the late Miocene of Africa.

Species

Taxonomy

A porcupine is any of 29 species of rodents belonging to the families Erethizontidae (genera: Coendou, Sphiggurus, Erethizon, Echinoprocta, and Chaetomys) or Hystricidae (genera: Atherurus, Hystrix, and Trichys). Porcupines vary in size considerably: Rothschild’s porcupine of South America weighs less than a kilogram (2.2 lb); the crested porcupine found in Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa can grow to well over 27 kg (60 lb). The two families of porcupines are quite different, and although both belong to the Hystricognathi branch of the vast order Rodentia, they are not closely related.

Old World compared to New World species

The 11 Old World porcupines tend to be fairly big, and have spikes grouped in clusters.

The two subfamilies of New World porcupines are mostly smaller (although the North American porcupine reaches about 85 cm or 33 in in length and 18 kg or 40 lb), have their quills attached singly rather than grouped in clusters, and are excellent climbers, spending much of their time in trees. The New World porcupines evolved their spines independently (through convergent evolution) and are more closely related to several other families of rodents than they are to the Old World porcupines.

Longevity

Porcupines have a relatively high longevity and had held the record for being the longest-living rodent, with one individual living to 27 years, until the record was recently broken by a naked mole-rat living to 28 years.

Diet

The North American porcupine is a herbivore; it eats leaves, herbs, twigs, and green plants such as clover. In the winter, it may eat bark. It often climbs trees to find food.

The African porcupine is not a climber and forages on the ground. It is mostly nocturnal, but will sometimes forage for food in the day. Porcupines have become a pest in Kenya and are eaten as a delicacy.

Quills

Porcupines’ quills, or spines, take on various forms, depending on the species, but all are modified hairs coated with thick plates of keratin, and embedded in the skin musculature. Old World porcupines (Hystricidae) have quills embedded in clusters, whereas in New World porcupines (Erethizontidae), single quills are interspersed with bristles, underfur, and hair.

Quills are released by contact or may drop out when the porcupine shakes its body. New quills grow to replace lost ones. It was long believed that porcupines had the ability to project their quills to a considerable distance at an enemy, but this has since been proven to be untrue.

 

 

Uses

In nature

Porcupines are only occasionally eaten in Western culture, but are very popular in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, where the prominent use of them as a food source has contributed to significant declines in their populations.

More commonly, their quills and guardhairs are used for traditional decorative clothing. For example, their guardhairs are used in the creation of the Native American “porky roach” headdress. The main quills may be dyed, and then applied in combination with thread to embellish leather accessories such as knife sheaths and leather bags. Lakota women would harvest the quills for quillwork by throwing a blanket over a porcupine and retrieving the quills it left stuck in the blanket.

Porcupine quills have recently inspired a new type of hypodermic needle. Due to backward-facing barbs on the quills, when used as needles, they are particularly good at two things – penetrating the skin and remaining in place. The presence of barbs acting like anchors makes it more painful to remove a quill that has pierced the skin of predator.

Habitat

Porcupines occupy a short range of habitats in tropical and temperate parts of Asia, Southern Europe, Africa, and North and South America. They live in forests and deserts, and on rocky outcrops and hillsides. Some New World porcupines live in trees, but Old World porcupines stay on the rocks. Porcupines can be found on rocky areas up to 3,700 m (12,100 ft) high. They are generally nocturnal but are occasionally active during daylight.

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About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

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