The porcupine, the second largest rodent in North America, is by far the prickliest. Its Latin name means “quill pig.” There are about two dozen porcupine species worldwide, and all boast a coat of needle-like quills to give predators a sharp reminder that this animal is no easy meal. Some quills, like those of Africa’s crested porcupine, are nearly a foot long. They are found on every continent except Antarctica. Scientists divide porcupines into two groups: Old World porcupines, which are found in Africa, Europe, and Asia; and New World porcupines, which are found in North, Central, and South America. The North American porcupine is the only species found in the United States and Canada. Currently porcupines are extirpated in Ohio. However, in the past few years there are reports of these prickly creatures in Ashtabula County.
Porcupines are large, slow-moving herbivores with bright orange teeth. Porcupines are nocturnal, foraging for food at night. New World porcupines spend their time in the trees, while Old World porcupines stay on the ground. Porcupines aren’t really social. Both types of porcupines are typically solitary, though New World porcupines may pair up. A mother and her young are considered a family group called a prickle. An adult animal is about 20 inches in length, not counting the tail, and weighs from 10 to 28 pounds. The tail can range from 8-12 inches, depending on the species. Long black and brown guard hairs cover its body and quills are mixed in among them. Quills are really modified hairs and are usually white tipped with black. A single animal may have 30,000 or more quills.
Porcupines have soft hair, but on their back, sides, and tail it is usually mixed with sharp quills. These quills typically lie flat until a porcupine is threatened, then spring to attention as a persuasive deterrent. Porcupines cannot shoot them at predators as once thought, but the quills do detach easily when touched. Many animals come away from a porcupine encounter with quills protruding from their own snouts or bodies. Quills have sharp tips and overlapping scales or barbs that make them difficult to remove once they are stuck in another animal’s skin. Porcupines grow new quills to replace the ones they lose.
North American porcupines use their large orange teeth to satisfy a healthy appetite for wood. Porcupines main diet consists of eating a variety of trees–hemlock, fir, and pine, as well as maple, beech, birch, oak, elm, cherry and willow. They also eat all kinds of woody shrubs. In addition, porcupines chew on bones to sharpen their teeth. Bones also give them important minerals, like salt and calcium, to keep them healthy. They are attracted to salt and may chew on any tool handle that has salt left from human sweat. Their scat is easily identified, as it looks like wood pellets the size of a quarter.
Porcupines live in just about any terrain, including deserts, grasslands, mountains, and forests. Dens in tree branches or tangles of roots, rock crevices, brush or logs are the porcupine’s home. Individual porcupine’s range can be as small as a couple trees to several acres.
Female porcupines carry their young for a gestation period of seven months, and give birth to one baby at a time; this is unusual for the rodent family which usually are prolific breeders.
Baby porcupines are called porcupettes. Porcupettes weigh 12 to 20 ounces at birth and have soft quills, which harden in a few days. Porcupettes mature at 9 months to 2.5 years, depending on species and can live up to 15 years in the wild. North American porcupines usually live 10 to 12 years in the wild.
Porcupines usually don’t have to worry about most predators. Most predators have learned the hard way that the porcupine is more trouble than it is worth. However, there is one predator that has a knack for getting past the porcupine’s prickly defenses. It is the Fisher. Remember him from previous articles; he is a member of the Mustelidae family. He has the uncanny ability to flip the porcupine over on its back and attack the unprotected underbelly.