Porcupines are rodents with a coat of sharp spines, or quills, that defend them from predators. The porcupines include the fourth largest rodent, after the capybara, mara, and beaver, and are not to be confused with hedgehogs which are Erinaceomorphs. Most porcupines are about 25-36 inches (60-90 cm) long, with a 8-10 inch (20-25 cm) long tail. Weighing between 12-35 pounds (5-16 kg), they are rounded, large and slow. Porcupines come in various shades of brown, grey, and the unusual white. The name "porcupine" comes from Middle French porc d'épine "thorny pork", hence the nickname "quill pig" for the animal.
The animal's quills or spines take on various forms,
depending on the species, but all are modified hairs coated with
thick plates of keratin, and they are embedded in the skin
musculature. Virtually all species of porcupine have
approximately 30,000 quills. Old World porcupines (Hystricidae)
have quills embedded in clusters, whereas in New World
porcupines (Erethizontidae) single quills are interspersed with
bristles, underfur, and hair.
Contrary to popular belief, porcupines are not capable of throwing their quills, but they detach very easily and will remain embedded in an attacker. Porcupine quills are as sharp as needles. Unlike needles, however, the quills of New World porcupines have microscopic, backwards-facing barbs on the tip that catch on the skin making them difficult and painful to extract. Quills are about 75 mm long and 2 mm wide. If a quill becomes lodged in the tissues of a would-be attacker, the barbs act to pull the quill further into the tissues with the normal muscle movements of the attacker, moving up to several millimeters in a day. Predators have been known to die as a result of quill penetration and infection.
In parts of Africa and Arabia, porcupines are eaten as a form of bush meat. Porcupine meat is also appreciated in some regions of Italy and Vietnam.
Porcupines occupy a wide range of habitats in tropical and temperate parts of Asia, Italy, Africa and the Americas. Porcupines live in forests, deserts and grasslands. Some live in trees, others stay on the ground.
Porcupines in search of salt sometimes encroach on human habitats, eating plywood cured with sodium nitrate, certain paints, and tool handles, footwear, clothes and other items that have been coated in salty sweat. Porcupines are attracted to roads in areas where rock salt is used to melt ice and snow, and are known to gnaw on vehicle tires or wiring coated in road salt. Salt licks placed nearby can prevent porcupine damage.
Natural sources of salt consumed by porcupines include varieties of salt-rich plants (such as yellow water lily and aquatic liverwort), fresh animal bones, outer tree bark, mud in salt-rich soils, and objects impregnated with urine.
A porcupine is any of 27 species of rodent belonging to the
families Erethizontidae or Hystricidae. All defend themselves
with sharp spines—actually modified hairs—rather like those of
the hedgehogs (which are part of the order Erinaceomorpha and
more closely related to shrews and moles than they are to the
rodents) and the echidnas, which as monotremes are very
distantly related indeed.
Porcupines vary in size considerably: Rothschild's Porcupine of South America weighs less than a kilogram; the African Porcupine can grow to well over 20 kg.
The two families of porcupines are quite different and although both belong to the Hystricognathi branch of the vast order Rodentia, they are not closely related.
The eleven Old World porcupines are almost exclusively terrestrial, tend to be fairly large, and have quills that are grouped in clusters. They separated from the other hystricognaths about 30 million years ago, much earlier than the New World porcupines.
The twelve New World porcupines are mostly smaller (although the North American Porcupine reaches about 85 cm in length and 18 kilograms), have their quills attached singly rather than grouped in clusters, and are excellent climbers, spending much of their time in trees. The New World porcupines evolved their spines independently (through convergent evolution) and are more closely related to several other families of rodent than they are to the Old World porcupines.
This Porcupine Page is Copyright The Animal Web Guide © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub