North American Porcupine

Erethizon dorsatum

 


The porcupine is a quill-bearing rodent (Order Rodentia) of the families Erethizontidae (New World) and Hystricidae (Old World). The North American Porcupine, best known of the New World species, is a heavyset, short-legged, slow-moving rodent that is usually solitary, nocturnal, herbivorous, and spends much of its time in trees.

The porcupine's barbed quills detach easily and can become painfully embedded in the skin of an attacker. Not only do they inflict painful wounds, but they also work into the skin and may even cause death if they puncture vital organs or if the wounds become infected. Porcupine quills embedded in an attacker's face may prevent the animal from feeding successfully, causing death from starvation.

Range

Throughout all the North American desert regions, and the entire west, north to Canada.

Habitat

Usually woods and woodlands.

Description

The North American Porcupine is the second largest of all rodents. It has a small head, a large, chunky body with a high arching back and short legs. Its head and body are 25 to 40 inches long, with a long, thick, muscular tail growing as long as 8 inches. It weighs from 10 to 40 pounds.

Long, yellowish guard hairs cover the front half of its body while up to 30,000 quills are interspersed among the dark, coarse guard hairs of the back and tail. These quills are the most distinguishing characteristic of the porcupine. The black-tipped, yellowish quills are stiff, barbed spines about 3 inches long that can become deadly once embedded in other animals' flesh.

The porcupine's feet have 4 toes on the forefeet and 5 on the hindfeet, all with long, curved claws and small textured knobby pads on the bottom. The long claws make depressions far ahead of the oval tracks, which are about 3 inches long and 5 to 6 inches apart.

Behavior

Although the porcupine is usually regarded as arboreal and found in woodlands, individuals wander widely and have been observed among Creosote in all of the North American deserts. The porcupine is primarily nocturnal and may rest by day in hollow trees and logs, crevices in rocky bluffs or underground burrows.

Porcupines are strict vegetarians. In the spring they feed on leaves, twigs and green plants. In winter, they chew through the outer bark of fir, hemlock, aspen and pines trees to eat the tender layer of tissue below. Sometimes, they will completely girdle, and thus kill, trees. They may also gnaw used ax handles, canoe paddles and other items for the salt and oil they contain. The two large, front gnawing teeth continue to grow as long as the porcupine lives.

When threatened, the North American Porcupine places his snout between his forelegs and spins around presenting its rear to the enemy. If attacked, contrary to popular belief, the porcupine does not throw its quills; instead, it drives its tail against the assailant and dozens of quills detach easily from the skin to remain embedded in the attacker. If hit in the face, a predator such as the wolf, bobcat or mountain lion may die of starvation when they find it impossible to remove the quills and are thus unable to eat.

Pets, who often are unable to resist the porcupine, can fall easy victim to the animal's quilled defenses and may require a simple surgical procedure by a veterinarian to remove them.

Life Cycle

Porcupines breed in the fall or early winter. The courtship ritual involves males who are looking for a mate uttering a high falsetto squeak, while females announce their availability by squalling. When the two come together, they confirm the arrangement with a great deal of nose rubbing.

One or two young are born with soft quills and eyes open about 10 days later. Their quills harden within the hour and they begin eating solid food after two weeks, but they continue to nurse for 4 or 5 months. While captives have lived up to 10 years, porcupines in the wild tend have a life expectancy of 5 to 6 years.

-- A.R. Royo






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