Out walking at Laughing Waters Farm I regularly find quills and am reminded of the discreet presence of porcupines. In remembering a thrilling nocturnal encounter with three seemingly enormous individuals, quills erected, I am inspired to explore the facts and fantasies.
It is Autumn. Native Americans believed that porcupine represented this season and a renewed sense of curiosity[i]. A myth about how the porcupine got it’s quills goes like this: the first porcupine had the most beautiful coat of fur which was the envy of all the animals. Porcupine would sit every day by the water admiring his beauty until one day the Great Spirit decided it was time to punish Porcupine for his vanity. The Great Spirit decided to take away Porcupine’s beautiful fur and cover his body with sharp quills. Porcupine continues to wear his coat of quills and this is why he hides during the day and will only come out at night.
Quite predictably, a gathering of porcupines is known as a Prickle of Porcupines. The quills of the porcupine are misunderstood. There are around 30,000 covering all parts of the body except face and the underside of the belly and tail. They are controlled by a layer of muscle and can be made to lie flat or straight up when the animal feels threatened. Quills are hollow and porcupines are good swimmers due to their buoyancy. The hollow quills on the tail make a rattling sound when shaken. They are not shot out as commonly believed, instead they are loosely attached and easily shed. Porcupines will lash their tails, aiming at the would- be predator’s head. If it makes contact, quills remain behind. There is no venom in the quills but they have barbs which expand within the animal’s skin. Each movement of the predator causes the quill to work its way deeper and it is impossible for the animal to remove it.
The name “porcupine” comes from the Latin porcus meaning pig and spina, spine or quill, from Old Italian—Middle French—Middle English[ii]. A regional American name for the animal is quill pig[iii]. Porcupines are broadly divided into the Old World[iv] and New World varieties. New World porcupines, including the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum), live in trees and eat leaves, fruits and bark. Old World porcupines, such as the Cape Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) live on the ground, often making their homes in holes in termite mounds, and feeding on fruit, roots and bulbs. New World porcupines are generally solitary. Old World porcupines are some of the few animals that are monogamous with an adult pair forming lifelong partners and caring for their young together[v][vi].
The thought may have crossed your mind, it did mine… with all those quills how do porcupines mate? Answer: When the female is ready, she presents her hindquarters and curves her tail over her back so that her quills don’t impale the male. Gestation lasts for three months. A single porcupette(!) is born during the wet months, into a grass-lined chamber in the parents’ den which can be up to 20m in length[vii]. They may inhabit up to six dens. The newborn have soft quills and spines at birth to ease the birthing process but they quickly harden in the air.
African Porcupines are the largest rodent in the region and the world’s fourth heaviest rodents after the capybara and Eurasian and North American beavers[viii]. Both male and female African Porcupines weigh between 18 and 30 kg and are about two feet long[ix]. They are long-lived for rodents, surviving 12 to 15 years. The size of their home territory, jointly defended by the pair, varies depending on the local habitat and availability of food, but can range between 67 and 203 hectares. This is much larger than I would have expected and would mean that there would be a maximum of two pairs at Laughing Waters Farm.
As human populations expand, humans and porcupines find themselves in increasing conflict. When porcupine populations close to cultivated areas increase, they can become serious agricultural pests. They are hunted for meat and their quills and have been eliminated from densely settled areas. Porcupine quills have long been a favourite ornament and good-luck charm in Africa. The hollow rattle quills serve as musical instruments and were once used as containers for gold dust[x]. Conservation efforts involve conserving habitat within agricultural areas and teaching sustainable agricultural practices.
I’ll leave you with a few porcupine enthused quotes:
- A relationship between a porcupine and a balloon can only end in disaster. Anthony T. Hincks
- If you start throwing hedgehogs under me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you. Nikita Khrushchev
- Porcupine, whom one must handle glove’d, May be respected, but is never loved. Arthur Guiterman
- Diplomacy: The business of handling a porcupine without disturbing the quills. (author unknown).
[i] Animal Speak, the Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small, T. Andrews, 2007.
[ii] Porcupine, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
[iii] Quill, Oxford English Dictionary.
[v] The North American Porcupine, U. Roze, 2009.
[vi] Porcupines: The Animal Answer Guide, U. Roze, 2012.
[vii] Porcupine, Syabona Africa, Kruger National Park
[viii] Hystrix africaeaustralis, E. L. Barthelmess, 2006, Mammalian Species, 1-7.
[ix] Porcupine, Syabona Africa, Kruger National Park.
[x] Porcupine, African Wildlife College.