Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 4 to 12 inches (10 to 30 centimeters)
Weight: 5 to 56 ounces (155 to 1,584grams)
Life span: 3 to 8 years in the wild, up to 10 years in zoos
Gestation: 4 to 6 weeks
Number of young at birth: 1 to 10 (average is 4 to 7)
Weight at birth: less than 1 ounce (3 to 25 grams)
Age of maturity: 9 to 11 months
Conservation status: stable
Hedgehogs can travel up to 2 miles (3 kilometers) a day and move at a speed of up to 6.5 feet (2 meters) per second.
When a desert hedgehog wants to eat a scorpion, it must first bite the stinger off the tail. Some hedgehog species can even eat venomous snakes!
The desert hedgehog favors temperatures from 104 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 42 degrees Celsius.
If a young hedgehog is separated from its mother, it may make a twittering or a whistle sound to let Mom know where to find it.
The hedgehog makes lots of foamy saliva in its mouth and smears it over its quills. It may do this to keep parasites off the skin or to make its quills taste bad to predators.
Hedgehogs are welcome in many gardens as pest controllers.
A pincushion with legs
The hedgehog is a short and stout little mammal that has sometimes been called a pincushion with legs! While most mammals have fur or hair that is somewhat flexible and soft, the hair on the back of a hedgehog is a thick layer of spikes (or modified hairs) known as quills. These quills are made of keratin, the same stuff our hair and fingernails are made of. Hedgehogs can be white or light brown to black in color, with several shades found in bands along their quills. Their bellies, face, and neck are covered in coarse hair. Some hedgehogs have a dark brown or black mask across their eyes.
These interesting critters have small but powerful legs and big feet with five toes each (except for the four-toed hedgehog Atelerix albiventris ). Their curved claws make them amazing diggers! They have a long snout with a wet nose, which gives them an excellent sense of smell. The hedgehog’s ears are big compared to its body size, giving the spiky little creature a good sense of hearing.
Rolling into a tight ball helps the hedgehog protect its soft belly from attack.
Is that a porcupine?
The hedgehog is not a porcupine; instead, its closest relatives are moonrats, shrews, and moles, which are also insectivores. Although porcupines, hedgehogs, and echidnas are not related, people often confuse them because these animals do share a common characteristic: a spiky outer covering of quills!
Ouch—a prickly prey!
The hedgehog’s best defense against predators is its spiky outer armor. With about 3,000 to 5,000 quills covering its back, the hedgehog can protect itself from animals that think it would make a tasty snack. When threatened, the hedgehog raises its quills upright in a crisscross pattern, making its body pointy and sharp. It uses its belly muscles, back muscles, and extra skin to tuck in its head, legs, and tail to curl into a complete ball, protecting its soft belly. The solid ball of spikes is hard for predators to open.
The European hedgehog’s long quills help it blend in with tall grasses.
Happy homes for hedgies
The hedgehog can be found in many different habitats, from desert to forest and beyond! The desert-dwelling species live in areas that are extremely dry (less than an inch of rainfall per year). Other species live throughout Asia and are widespread in Europe from the Mediterranean up into Scandinavia. In Africa, hedgehogs are found from savannas to forests to city streets, where they waddle along, foraging for insects.
Hedgehogs live on the ground, never in trees. They like to live alone and may be territorial. Some hedgehogs dig burrows in the soil up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) deep; others prefer to make nests with dead leaves, grasses, and branches. Desert hedgehogs Paraechinus sp. even hide between boulders or burrows into the sand to escape the desert heat. In Asia, long-eared hedgehogs Hemiechinus auritus have been known to move into burrows left by turtles, foxes, gerbils, and otters.
In Europe, hedgehogs have a good relationship with people and are considered friends of backyards and gardens. These hedgehogs are often found in flower beds, vegetable gardens, and compost heaps. Some gardeners make nests of straw, hay, or boxes to attract hedgehogs. In turn, the hedgehogs eat snails, slugs, and other garden pests.
South African hedgehogs include snails on their lunch menu.
Hedgehogs are insectivores, but they can also eat other ground-dwelling creatures such as slugs and snails. The European hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus dines on earthworms, beetles, millipedes, caterpillars, slugs, snails, earwigs, and birds’ eggs and chicks. Some hedgies, like those that live in the deserts of Africa, even eat dead animals, small rodents, scorpions, and small snakes. The menu of a South African hedgehog Atelerix frontalis includes all of the above as well as fungi, frogs, lizards, termites, grasshoppers, and moths. Don’t forget the veggies! Some hedgies include fruit, roots, grass, leaves, and seeds along with their creepy-crawly main course.
Hedgehogs at the San Diego Zoo are fed a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, cat kibble, and mealworms.
Two days after his birth, this baby African hedgehog was not much bigger than small change.
Hooray for hoglets!
Baby hedgehogs are called hoglets, or piglets. Females usually give birth to four to seven young once or twice a year. Newborns look like chubby white caterpillars. They do have quills at birth, but these are soft and flexible. During birth, they are also covered by puffy, fluid-filled skin to avoid hurting the mother. Within a day, the hoglet’s skin shrinks and about 150 white quills appear.
At a week old, hoglets may push each other over the milk supply. By the time they are a month old, they have opened their eyes, and their backs are covered with dense, dark quills. At this time, the mother will take her hoglets on foraging trips, showing them how to find food. Depending on the species, it takes 6 to 13 weeks for the hoglets to be fully weaned. When they are ready, they will leave the mother to begin their new life as a solo hedgie.
A hedgehog’s large nose helps it sniff out tasty bugs and worms hiding underground.
Small critter, big myths
Ancient Roman and Chinese folklore tell tales of hedgehogs carrying fruit on their quills. Although fruit, leaves, and twigs may accidentally get stuck on one of these “pincushions,” hedgehogs do not use their quills to carry food. And unlike the hedgehogs from the book Alice in Wonderland or the popular video game “Sonic the Hedgehog,” they cannot roll along when curled into a ball. Perhaps the biggest myth of all, however, is that a hedgehog can shoot its quills! Can you shoot the hair out of your head? Just like your hair, a hedgehog’s quills can fall out or break off, but the hedgehog cannot “shoot” quills to defend itself.
Pet or party pooper?
Hedghogs are very active at night and are truly nighttime party animals, digging, chewing, and foraging through the darkest hours. Although they make amazing animal ambassadors for the San Diego Zoo, hedgehogs don’t make very good pets. In fact, it is illegal to have a hedgehog as a pet in many places. Hedgehogs have teeth—up to 44 of them, and, like any animal with teeth, they can bite! They can also carry parasites on their quills. Hedgehogs are amazing animals, but remember that they just aren’t as cuddly as a dog or a cat.
As seen on this young European hedgehog, its quills are found only on the back and head.
Hedgehogs and people
Although not currently listed as threatened or endangered, many hedgehog species face challenges. Hugh’s hedgehog Mesechinus hughi (also known as the Shaanxi hedgehog), a native of China, is on the decline as people use them for food and medicine. The Daurian hedgehog Mesechinus dauuricus has lost habitat in much of China, Mongolia, and Russia as people increase mining activities, graze livestock, and set out poison to kill local rodents. The Indian hedgehog Paraechinus micropus , found in India and Pakistan, is losing some of its range as farms expand into its desert habitat. The Madras hedgehog Paraechinus nudiventris of southern India suffers habitat loss due to the collection of wood for fuel, farmland increases, and the quick growth of cities.
Hedgehogs are active at night—but sleep all day, up to 18 hours!
Hope for hedgehogs
Still, the good news is that most species of hedgehogs have very stable populations and are not at great risk of becoming endangered. However, hedgehogs will probably need our help someday. More research is needed on these amazing little mammals: the more we know about them, the better we can protect them.