🐾 Maybe the reason I love animals so much, is because the only time they have broken my heart is when theirs has stopped beating.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009


Porcupines on the red Kalahari dunes, Kgalagadi, South Africa
©South African Tourism

The porcupine is the prickliest of rodents, though its Latin name means "quill pig." There are about two dozen porcupine species, and all boast a coat of needle-like quills to give predators a sharp reminder that this animal is no easy meal. Some quills, like those of Africa's crested porcupine, are nearly a foot (30 centimeters) long.

Porcupines have soft hair, but on their back, sides, and tail it is usually mixed with sharp quills. These quills typically lie flat until a porcupine is threatened, then leap to attention as a persuasive deterrent. Porcupines cannot shoot them at predators as once thought, but the quills do detach easily when touched.

Many animals come away from a porcupine encounter with quills protruding from their own snouts or bodies. Quills have sharp tips and overlapping scales or barbs that make them difficult to remove once they are stuck in another animal's skin. Porcupines grow new quills to replace the ones they lose.

Porcupine roaming in the Northern Cape, South Africa
©South African Tourism

You might be pondering why on earth mother nature endowed this creature with such a crest of formidable spikes. Well, if you knew how tasty and succulent their plump flesh is under that bristle of quills – you would know why the great creator of all beasts and evolution itself provided such a veritable armoury of spines.

"Porcupine Quill" watercolour - Maree

Porcupines occupy a wide range of habitats in tropical and temperate parts of Asia, Italy, Africa, and North and South America. Porcupines live in forests, deserts, rocky outcrops, hillsides and grasslands. Some new world porcupines live in trees, but old world porcupines stay on the ground. Porcupines can be found on rocky areas up to 3,500 m (11,000 ft) high. Porcupines are nocturnal.

The porcupines found in North and South America are good climbers and spend much of their time in trees. Some even have prehensile (gripping) tails to aid in climbing. The North American porcupine is the only species that lives in the U.S. and Canada, and is the largest of all porcupines. A single animal may have 30,000 or more quills. North American porcupines use their large front teeth to satisfy a healthy appetite for wood. They eat natural bark and stems, and have been known to invade campgrounds and chew on canoe paddles. North American porcupines also eat fruit, leaves, and springtime buds.

Porcupine in a relaxed state

Porcupine showing his discontent at being disturbed.

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 porcupines from injuring themselves.
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 imbued with urine.

• Store quills in a cool, dry place. A plastic storage container is a good option.
• Always handle porcupine quills with care. They are very delicate and splinter easily.
• Handle uncut porcupine quills with care. The tips are extremely sharp.
• Keep porcupine quills out of the reach of small children and pets because of the sharp edges

Porcupine quills are sharp as needles. Unlike needles, quills have backwards facing barbs that catch on the skin making them difficult to extract.
Magnification x50

Porcupines and baby

A North American porcupine foraging for grubs in the grass.

Our friend, the porcupine is a vegetarian who prefers roots, tubers and sometimes a little bark or wild fruit. Well trodden trails are easily identified by shallow holes, exposed plant roots and bulbs and the odd quill. If by chance it rambles into a farmer’s patch it will feast gloriously upon the tatties, pumpkins and any other root vegetables in its path. It gobbles away noisily until just before dawn and then slips away into the foliage to slumber in a burrow - a veritable Winnie the Pooh. After overly sampling the forbidden delights it leaves a trail of destruction to greet the hapless farmer in the morning.

A wary porcupine with crest erected, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa
©South African Tourism

Porcupines have also been known to raid cultivated gardens adjoining nature reserves, mystifying gardeners with the nightly disappearance of their beloved arum lilies. A single sighting of these remarkable creatures roaming around the garden by moonlight tends to be ample compensation to the gardener for the pilfering.

Status: Their population is stable although the increasing demand for their quills as interior decorations and tourist souvenirs sadly spells untimely death to this benign creature – as distasteful as the fur and ivory trade. It has been given Least Risk status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

When you’re most likely to spot porcupines: Porcupines are nocturnal and start foraging well after dusk until just before dawn. Sometimes they bask in the sun just outside their burrows.

Where porcupines roam: They range widely but prefer broken veld, occurring throughout southern Africa except in the Namib desert.

Reproduction & dwellings: During the day they sleep in caves, rock crevices, burrows or hidden in dense vegetation. Although they are solitary foragers, they often share their burrows. They usually have one or two young but can have a litter of up to four. The young are well developed at birth and suckle for about 3 months. They start foraging under the protection of their parents during the weaning stage.


  1. A very comprehensive story of Porcupines, the very much larger relations of the hedgehog. Well I imagine they might be related,maybe not?
    Thanks for all that information, we don't have them, but I have seen a few in Zoos.

    1. Lovely to hear from you again Glennis! How's new Zealand doing? Yea, the porcupine is actually a rodent and not related to the hedgies at all and they're much more formidable when you come across them! Our potato farmers here have a problem with them digging up all the potatoes and, as such, are often killed indiscriminately.

  2. Oh my goodness! Fantastic post with so much information. I also love your sketch of the quill. The photos were fabulous. They are very cute (and beautiful), although those quills look quite scary.

    1. Thanks Kelly and I enjoy your bird posts tremendousely! (follow via Google reader) and beautiful pics too. What camera do you use?

  3. Coming from South Africa and living in a small coastal town called Amanzimtoti we were very surprised to be woken by our dogs last night barking at a porcupine outside our bedroom window. Under normal circumstances we would have been thrilled but sadly one of our dogs was stabbed (about 4cm deep)into her shoulder by one of the quills. We are about to take her to the vet but are wondering how serious this is. Her shoulder is very swollen and she is in an enormous amount of pain. I would imagine it has to do with the removal of the quill as they have barbs on them and probably this might cause infection as well as damage when taking it out.
    Would anyone have any information that may be helpful to us. Many thanks
    Jen A

    1. Hi Jenny, Porcupine pricks can be very painful and is probably only serious if left un-treated as it can cause quite an infection. I'm sure your vet will be able to help you in this instance.

      I've been through Amanzimtoti a couple of times on the way to Margate and have stayed at the Protea Hotel a couple of times - lovely South Coast!



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