The Porcupine: 5 Questions Answered

Thursday, November 18, 2021
Porcupines are one of those animals that we know exist, but are so shy and secretive in their habits that we rarely see them. When we do catch a glimpse of these mysterious bundles of quills they are most often high up in the tree tops, or sadly, deceased as casualties of the road. So while we all know what a porcupine is, not many of us know much about porcupine behaviour or lifestyle. Read on to learn the answers to five commonly asked porcupine questions. 

Fun fact: Baby porcupines are called pups or porcupettes

Where does the name
porcupine come from?
The common name for the porcupine comes from the old French word 'porcespin' which translates to spiny pig or thorny pork - not a terribly accurate depiction considering the lack of resemblance to porcine, and the fact that porcupines are in the rodent family. The species name for the porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, is much more accurate with the loose translation of "the animal with the irritating back". Though irritating may be putting it lightly, just ask any dog whose met the tail end of one. 

What do they eat?
Though they differ in appearance from their relatives, porcupines are, in fact, rodents. This is evident when you have a look at those long, orange incisors that most other rodents have in common. These reddish-orange chompers aren't dirty or decaying, they are coloured this way due to iron oxide in the enamel of the teeth. Iron in the teeth gives them strength and resistance to acid, and is what makes it possible for porcupines to chew away on their favourite foods which include pine needles, tree bark (with a particular fondness for white pine), catkins, leaves, nuts, corn, apples, and more. A highly desired treat for most porcupines are the tender leaves of arrowheads, which they wade or swim out into the water to feed on with the help of thousands of air-filled quills which act as miniature life-jackets. Some other items porcupines are known to chew on to help keep their teeth in check are antlers, bone, and leather.

Photo by Paul Hartley Photography

What do porcupines do for our ecosystem?

Many homeowners consider porcupines to be a nuisance due to their feeding habits, occasionally killing trees by feeding heavily on their bark, but the porcupine's ecological value greatly outweighs their less-than-ideal behaviours. Though they don't have many predators (thank you quills!), porcupines are a prey item for fishers, coyotes, some owl species, and scavengers such as turkey vultures and ravens. In addition to providing food to a number of species, porcupines also act as food transporters through their foraging techniques. When a porcupine feeds on branches or leaves in the canopy of the tree, many twigs, nuts, and fruits drop to the forest floor, providing food for ground-dwelling animals below. Their scat also helps provide nutrients to the soil, and disperses seeds to aid in new plant growth.

Can they shoot their quills?
This is arguably the most wide-spread porcupine myth out there, and contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot use their quills as projectile weapons. This falsehood may stem from people observing loose quills falling out of the tail when it is being whipped back and forth in an act of defense. The roughly 30 000 quills on a porcupine's body are designed to come out quickly and easily when it is under attack, but it takes pressure on the quills in order for them to shed from the body. Porcupines are a peaceful species by nature, fleeing when feeling threatened and even when under attack. The myth surrounding porcupines having the ability to shoot their quills has been passed down from generation to generation, often leading people to become unnecessarily fearful of these docile rodents. 

What should I do if I see a porcupine in my yard?
If you are lucky enough to have a porcupine visit your yard - enjoy it! These misunderstood creatures are elusive and shy in nature, and being able to observe one from your own yard should be considered a privilege. Keep in mind that if you have dogs who roam your yard, it is advised to keep them contained or on lead a far distance from the porcupine in order to maintain the safety of all parties involved. If you suspect a porcupine may be ill or injured, contact a local wildlife rehabilitation centre immediately for assistance.

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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