Porcupine facts and fallacies

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118780462031253.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘A porcupine gnaws on a discarded antler inthe hope of finding a bit of salt.‘);

The porcupine is one of the largest members of the vast order of mammals known as rodents. A fully mature porcupine may be as long as 3 feet and weigh in the vicinity of 35 to 40 pounds. It is sometimes called a hedgehog, but the European hedgehog is a different species. As are all mammals, the body is covered with hair; but this animal is unique in that interspersed amid the hair on the back and tail are numerous sharp, barbed quills. The quills give the beast a unique method of defense. Its distribution today extends from Alaska through Canada, to the northern tier of the United States.

The protective quills give the porcupine such assurance it can protect itself from predators it will usually not flee when faced with danger, but frequently advance toward an enemy. For this reason, some believe the porcupine to be a stolid, dumb animal, but it is actually no smarter or dumber than other rodents

Years ago, when I served in Alaska, I attended a few classes at the Army’s Arctic Survival School at the Big Delta base. I learned that if you were lost in the wilds and needed food, the easiest animal to kill with a stick or by other means was a porcupine. Roasted, it was touted to be delicious, at least to some.

Because of the peculiarities of the porcupine numerous folk stories and legends have developed. The most frequently heard of these fallacies is that the porcupines can and will shoot its quills at a tormentor. This not true. The quills are loosely embedded in the skin, and if a porcupine shakes its body and tail, some of the darts may fall away loosely, and this is the basis for the quill-shooting story. Normally, the quills lay flat along the body, but each one is connected to a muscle in the skin that can erect the quill if the porcupine desires. Most wild animals have learned to leave porcupines alone but dogs sometimes, much to their regret, attack them. Each quill is barbed like a fishhook and, once embedded, easily becomes detached from the porcupine. Dogs and other animals have been found with a mouthful of quills, apparently dead from starvation. Porcupines have an unusual attraction to salt in the slightest amount, so, if for some reason, a person wishes to trap one, salt is the preferred bait. Like other rodents, they are gnawers and feed largely on the bark of trees and other vegetation.

The fisher, a relative of the weasel, is about the only enemy the porcupine has. The fisher has learned there are no quills on the belly of the porcupine, and to have him for dinner he just needs to carefully flip him over and open the underbelly with its sharp claws.

With both the bodies of the male and female porcupine are covered with quills, many have wondered how they mate. The fact is, porcupines mate as do other animals without quills. Fortunately for the male, the female can control her spines and, during the mating process, pulls them tightly against her body. Of course, for the mating to be successful, the female must be 100 percent cooperative. The male knows this, either by painful experience or by an inherited instinct. In any event, the female porcupine is always the aggressor at mating time, and the male just goes about his business until approached by an ardent female.

The fact that both male and female porcupine have quills has led to much speculation of how the young are born without causing injury to the mother. Some insist the baby porcupine must always be born headfirst in order that its quills are reversed during the birth process. The fact of the matter is, they can be born either head or tail first. The infant is covered by a tough, protective membrane that is similar to the birth membrane of most other mammals.

Porcupines prefer to live in wooded areas, making their home in a hollow tree or protected in a niche in a rock formation. The porcupine is thought to no longer exist in Illinois, though numerous remains of this curious animal have been found in various parts of the state and, apparently, was widespread in this area ages ago.

from the Aug. 22-28, 2007, issue

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