A porcupines is a type of rodent that cannot move fast and has a relatively large body. Hence, without their unique system of defense―the sharp, spiny quills that characterize them―they would have been literally easy meat for any predator. Their name has been derived from the Middle French word 'porc d'épine', which means 'thorny pig'.
Where are Porcupines Found?
Porcupines are commonly found in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. The ones that occur in North and South America are very good climbers, and can be found spending a lot of time up in the trees, foraging for food. Some of them are even equipped with prehensile tails that help them grip branches. The porcupines that are found in Africa, Asia, and Europe inhabit forests, grasslands, and deserts, and are mostly terrestrial.
Porcupines can belong to any of the 27 rodent species of the families Hystricidae or Erethizontidae, and all of them have the sharp spines for defending themselves. It is the third largest amongst rodents, after the capybara and the beaver. This animal can vary in size to quite a great extent. For example, while the African porcupine can weigh up to 20 kg and more, the Rothschild's porcupine that occurs in South America hardly weighs a kilogram, usually less than that.
Basically, there are 11 types of porcupines that are found in Africa, Asia, and Europe. These tend to be quite large in size, with their quills bunched in clusters. There are 12 types that occur in North and South America, which are usually smaller in size, with their quills growing singly instead of occurring in clusters.
However, the North American porcupine can weigh up to 18 kg, and measure up to 33 inches, or 85 cm, in length, which can have as many as 30,000 quills, and large front teeth which they use to gnaw on the bark of trees.
The fur can range from yellowish-brown, to gray, and sometimes even white. The body is rounded in shape, with a small head, and small ears. Its legs are short and strong. And, of course, the porcupine's most identifiable feature is its quills.
The quills are basically modified hair which it has right from birth. They are solid at the base and the tip, with the shaft being mostly hollow. The tips of these quills have microscopic barbs that face backwards. The quills occur in every part of the body, apart from the stomach, with the shortest of them occurring on its cheeks and the longest on its rump.
Contrary to common misconception, they cannot throw their quills to impale a predator, or a person. A predator has to actually come in contact with the animal, however slightly, before they dislodge and get embedded into the skin. This means, it is only when this slow-moving, near-sighted, clumsy creature is provoked, or feels threatened, that it will shuffle clumsily, turning its back towards the source of the threat, prick up its quills, and lash its tail towards the predator or threat.
Once a quill does get lodged into the tissue of a predator, it gets pulled even further inside by the barbs due to the movements of the muscles of the predator. It can get pulled in by several millimeters per day, and death can be caused due to the penetration as well as infection. However, the porcupine, by nature, is a docile creature, and uses its quills only in self-defense. Certain animals, e.g. the fisher, are quite adept at attacking porcupines despite their quills.
What do Porcupines Eat?
Porcupines are herbivores, and hence, their diet comprises leaves, green plants such as clover and skunk cabbage, fruits, springtime buds, and so on. Those that climb trees also eat the bark of trees.
The mating season is late summer and the early part of fall. They are usually very vocal when it is the mating season, with males fighting over females. Part of the mating ritual involves the male performing an elaborate dance and spraying urine on the female. The female gives birth, usually to a single offspring, around 7 months after the mating. At birth, the quills of the baby are soft, which harden in an hour or so. The baby porcupine begins foraging for food in a just a day or two, although it remains with its mother for around 6 months.