5:59 p.m. - 2007-03-27
Hello! I hope you've all been well! I also sincerely hope that you got to bask a little in the warm sun yesterday!
And I hope you enjoyed the previous post, seeing photographic evidence of R and I basking in the sun!
But for a change of pace, let us turn our focus to a North American creature today. This critter was suggested to me by my dear cousin Miss Lippy. The porcupine!
Fuzzy! (But spiny.)
Porcupines are the world's fourth largest rodent, after the capybara (and mara) and the beaver. The average porcupine ranges from 25 to 36 inches long, has and eight to ten inch tail and weighs between 12 and 35 lbs.
In the big ol' Order Rodentia, there are two porcupine families. The eleven Old World species fall into the Hystricidae family, while the twelve species of our own New World porcupines are part of the Erethizontidae family. Interestingly, the two families are not closely related. It seems like the New World porcupines actually evolved quills as a form of defense separately (and later than) the New World dudes. For a large, slow and otherwise wimpy rodent, some badass quills sound like a good development.
The word porcupine comes from the French "porc d'epine" or "thorny pork". They are also called "quill pigs".
Superpowers of the porcupine include, um, its' quills, along with superb hearing, senses of hearing and taste. Eyesight is poor, though. They're also excellent swimmers, kept buoyant by their hollow quills!
Contrary to popular belief, porcupines don't actually throw their 30,000 quills at their enemies; they just come off easily when touched. The body heat of the attacker causes the quill to expand and sink in deeper. Barbs on the quill also deepen the wound if an animal (or person) tries to pull it out. An encounter with a porcupine can kill an animal, not usually from infection, but instead from starvation, as any quills in the mouth might prevent the victim from eating.
The fisher, part of the weasel family, is one of the few creatures that can kill a porcupine. A fisher will incapacitate the porc by biting its' nose, and then flips the spiny guy over and attacks its' furry belly. Porcupines aren't very fast, and can easily be clubbed by people. In Italy, Vietnam and some parts of Alaska porcupine meat is considered a delicacy.
Side note: Has Mario Batali ever cooked porcupine on his Molto Mario show?
Side note: Have YOU ever been stuck by a porcupine?!
Porcupines are strict vegetarians, enjoying leaves, twigs, ground plants and in the wintertime, tree bark. They can kill trees by eating all the way around a trunk. Although porcupines climb trees regularly, and may live in a hollow tree trunk, one Alaskan study found up to 30% of porcupines had healed fractures. This makes one assume that they fall out of the trees, too!
These rodents are mostly solitary, although they might snuggle together in a winter den. They'll live in caves and hollow logs as well as tree trunks.
Females are more territorial than males, but when nooky season comes along, in the late summer or early fall, males will expand the size of their territory over five times to find a honey. Upon meeting each other, the male porcupine will put on a squeaking and wiggling display, culminating in the process of urinating on the female's head. If she's into it, she'll back up, flip her tail over her quills (the underside of the tail is not spiny) and accept his love. If the female porcupine is not interested, she'll shake off the urine and leave the scene!
The gestation period for porcupines is very long for a rodent: Seven months. Usually one or two babies are born. Their spikes harden within the first hour, and they nurse for about four months. The baby porcupines then find their own territory in the late summer when mating season comes around again.
Two more facts: Native Americans decorated leather with porcupine quills. Porcupines will seek out salty items like shovel handles and wooden canoes and then eat them to get the sodium!
I hope you liked learning about porcupines! I'd love to see one sometime, wouldn't you?