Species Spotlight: Porcupine

Even though it is a rodent, the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is a force to be reckoned with. While the porcupine is not typically an aggressive animal, it is ferocious when provoked. With approximately 30,000 quills the texture of barbed wire, the porcupine uses these razor-sharp hairs expertly in self-defense. When a predator approaches, the porcupine will turn its back, raise the quills and lash out at the threat with its tail. When the predator is hit, the quills become embedded in the animal. Body heat makes the barbs expand, embedding the quills even deeper into the animal’s skin. If the quills hit any vital places, the attack can be fatal for the predator. While some animals, like the fisher and the great horned owl, are experts at attacking porcupines , most predators are put off by this dangerous animal. 

A porcupine has a round body, short, strong legs and feet with hairless soles. It has a small head with little ears and is covered in fur that ranges in color from black, to brown, to even a dark yellow. It is possible for the North American porcupine to weigh anywhere from 15-25 pounds – that is one big rodent!
The North American porcupine can be found throughout the United States. They are prevalent in western states all the way south to Mexico and may also be found on states in or near the east coast. They are also widespread throughout most of Canada. These mammals live in coniferous, deciduous and mixed forests and can be found in scrubby areas in the west. This species spends much of its time in trees, but stays in its den during the nasty parts of the winter. The porcupine makes its dwelling in caves, hollow trees, or decaying logs but doesn’t actually hibernate. It is an active animal; its hollow quills allow it to swim to find vegetation in rivers and its claws help with climbing. However, the porcupine always prefers to work alone.

Mating season is full of excitement for the porcupines. They mate in late summer and early fall, and are very vocal during this time. The males fight over the females and use their incisor teeth and quills in the battle to establish dominance. Females are pregnant for seven months, and give birth to a single baby. The infant’s quills are soft for a bit, but harden shortly after birth. The baby stays with its mother for half a year until it ventures on its own. However, the baby porcupine spends its infancy helping in the search for food, despite its young age. 

The porcupine is an herbivore, and eats leaves, twigs and green plants like skunk cabbage and clover. In the winter, it may even eat bark off the trees it climbs. These rodents are usually nocturnal, but may scout for food at any time. They typically live anywhere from 10-15 years, but don’t usually live past 10 years in captivity.

To see these fascinating creatures first-hand, visit Rocky Mountain National Park,  Wind Cave National Park or Yosemite National Park. Don’t get too close!

Fun Facts:
-The porcupine cannot shoot its quills, instead it releases its muscles and embeds the quills in its attacker.
- Its quills have antibiotic properties.
- It is a very vocal animal and has a wide-variety of calls including moans, grunts, coughs, wails, whines, shrieks and tooth clicking.
- The porcupine has quills on all parts of its body, except for its stomach.
- A baby porcupine may be referred to as a “porcupette.”

Image: North American porcupines at Rocky Mountain National Park. Source: NPS