Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Hystricidae (Old World porcupines)
Erethizontidae (New World porcupines)
Genus: 7 genera
Body length: largest—North African crested porcupine Hystrix cristata, up to 36 inches (90 centimeters); smallest—Bahia hairy dwarf porcupine Sphiggurus insidiosus, up to 15 inches (38 centimeters)
Tail length: 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters)
Weight: 2.5 to 77 pounds (1.2 to 35 kilograms), depending on species
Life span: 15 years in the wild, 20 or more years in zoos
Gestation: 16 to 31 weeks, depending on species
Number of young at birth: 1 to 3 Weight at birth: about 3 percent of mother’s weight
Age of maturity: 9 months to 2.5 years, depending on species
Conservation status: Malayan porcupineHystrix brachyura and brown hairy dwarf porcupine Sphiggurus vestitus are vulnerable
Porcupines may look awkward on land but they are good swimmers.
• The Latin translation of porcupine is porcus, meaning “pig,” and spina, meaning “thorn.”
• Porcupines tend to grunt when foraging for food.
• The North American porcupine Erethizon dorsatum has over 30,000 quills!
• New World porcupines are also known as tree porcupines.
• The philosopher Aristotle warned of the dangers of getting too close to a porcupine: the quilled beast could "shoot its deadly needlelike darts" over great distances at hunters and dogs alike. After reading this fact sheet, you'll learn that this is not true!
The best defense is a
Let's get right to the point: porcupines cannot shoot their quills! Quills are just modified hairs made out of keratin, the same substance found in our own hair and fingernails. The quills do not cover the underside of the porcupine. Porcupines have muscles at the base of each quill that allow them to stand up when the animal is excited or alarmed. Like all hairs, quills do shed, and when the porcupines shake, loose quills can fly off (but without deadly force). Still, the quills can cause problems, and puncture wounds inflicted by porcupines are very serious.
Porcupines are found in two main regions of the world, so they are grouped by scientists into either Old World porcupines or New World porcupines. Old World porcupines are found in Europe, Africa, and Asia; some examples are the North African crested porcupineHystrix cristata, African brush-tailed porcupine Atherurus africanus, and Indian crested porcupineHystrix indica. New World porcupines are found in North, Central, and South America; some examples are the North American porcupine Erethizon dorsatum, Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine Sphiggurus mexicanus, and the Brazilian porcupine Coendou prehensilis.
Quills— Old World crested porcupines have back quills that can stand up into a crest (like a Mohawk hairdo). The crest starts from the top of the head and goes down to the shoulders. They display their weaponry for all to see. Each quill is boldly marked with black and white bands. Some quills can be up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) long. These long, pliable quills act as guard hairs and form a "skirt." When threatened, the skirt can be erected, making the porcupine appear two to three times bigger. Smaller, rigid quills that are 8 inches (20 centimeters) long are densely packed over the rump and back. These are used to stab any potential threat. At the base of the tail, crested porcupines have blunt, hollow quills that rattle when shaken, serving as a warning to potential predators. If the noise doesn't work, the porcupine may try to charge backwards into the predator. When threatened, crested porcupines stamp their feet, growl, and grunt.
The quills of a New World porcupine are much smaller but work just as well. The end of each quill has a small barb (like a fish hook) that snags the flesh, keeping the quill stuck in the enemy's skin. Any animal with a quill lodged in its skin will have a hard time removing it if it doesn't have fingers and thumbs! The North American porcupine's quills can reach 4 inches (10 centimeters) long. When threatened, the animal erects quills that jut out in various directions, like a pincushion. The porcupine may stand still in a defensive pose or it may charge the enemy. New World porcupines are also known to lash out at predators by quickly batting at them with their quill-laden tails. During fights, a New World porcupine will also chatter its teeth.
Lifestyle— Old World porcupines spend their life on the ground. They are fairly social, sometimes traveling in pairs. They find shelter in caves, rock crevices, holes, or burrows that they may have dug. They sometimes find shelter in abandoned aardvark holes, which they may change to suit their own needs. Old World porcupines do not climb or jump very well, but they are excellent swimmers.
New World porcupines spend most of their time alone or in pairs moving through the trees. They may den in tree nests, rock crevices, brush, logs, and in tangled tree roots. All New World porcupines have long, curved claws that are excellent for climbing. The Coendou species of porcupines are equipped with prehensile tails that curl around branches, anchoring them to a tree.
Diet— All porcupines are nocturnal rodents with a great sense of smell. To make quick work of available food, these herbivores have sharp, chisel-like front teeth. Old World porcupines eat bark, roots, fruits, and berries. In rural areas, they may eat farmed crops, such as groundnuts, potatoes, pumpkins, and melons.
New World porcupines eat primarily pine needles and bark, roots, stems, leaves, berries, meadow grass, seeds, flowers, nuts, aquatic vegetation, fruits, and tubers. Some have been known to take fruit and corn from plantations, and the North American porcupine has earned a bad reputation for killing timber and ornamental trees by stripping bark from the trunks.
Porcupines may gnaw on bones to sharpen their teeth and to get salt at the same time. On occasion, porcupines have been known to eat insects and small lizards. At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, porcupines may be fed yams, corn, apples, and greens as well as herbivore pellets.
A painful delivery?
Porcupine babies, called porcupettes, are not born with sharp or barbed quills, thank goodness! Instead, the porcupette's quills are soft and bendable, gradually hardening in the first few days after birth. The youngster will stay with its mother for just a few months before it's ready to live on its own.
Here comes trouble
Having quills does not necessarily mean that the porcupine's life is trouble free. Large cats, especially lions, and human hunters (bushmeat trade) threaten Old World porcupines. New World porcupines’ predators include martens, wolverines, pythons, eagles, and great horned owls. One porcupine predator, the fisher, is able to flip the North American porcupine onto its back, exposing its unprotected belly. In fact, the fisher has been reintroduced to some areas of North America in hopes of bringing destructive populations of porcupines under control.
Making a point
There are still misunderstandings and myths about porcupines. We hope this fact sheet has answered some of those prickly questions!