Porc and pine

Porcupine

So I started out yesterday not with the intention of posting about the new Frontenac Bird Studies MAPS program, but rather to write about this guy, who we startled as we were hiking through the bush. We were far enough off the trails, and the trails are infrequently hiked to begin with, that there’s a good chance that this particular individual almost never saw people, and was probably quite alarmed when we came over the hill. He scurried over to the nearest tree and quickly started hauling himself up the trunk.

It is, of course, a porcupine. More specifically, it’s a North American Porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum. There are 27 species of porcupines, found in both the “old” and “new” worlds. In the Americas, there are 16 species, most of which are found in South America. The only one to occur north of Mexico is this one, which is mainly a northern species. It also happens to be the largest of them all, growing up to 40 lbs (18 kg), an adaptation to the colder climate. Most are smaller, since they live in warmer regions – for example, the prehensile-tailed porcupines of South America are only about a foot long and weigh less than a kilogram (around 2 lbs).

Porcupine

Our “neighbour” at the north of the lake told us to be on the lookout for them, as this is “porcupine weekend”, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to find it. It was, in fact, the second one we’d seen – we’d already startled one shortly after we’d started out from the car. That one disappeared after cresting a hill, and must have either gone into a den or behind some rocks or something. Porcupines spend the winter in dens, often in the ground. They do not hibernate, but do spend a lot of the cold months sleeping. As they start to get more active in the spring, you start to see more evidence of them.

Porcupine poop
Deer droppings and porcupine poop.

In particular, you’ll likely start noticing piles of their poop on the forest floor. The first time Dan and I found one we had no idea what it was. In the same way that you find little piles of rabbit or deer droppings, these were a pile of pellets, but pale brownish, the colour of sawdust, and shaped like macaroni. The sawdust colour isn’t all that surprising, as that is essentially the bulk of a porcupine’s diet. In the winter they mostly chew on the outer bark layer, denuding the trunks of trees but leaving the tree itself intact. However, they do also eat twigs and buds, particularly in the spring when there is tender new growth.

Porcupine

Those tender buds can get them into trouble. According to Wikipedia (which references a printed book called “The North American Porcupine”), porcupines occasionally fall out of trees in their attempts to get at these delectably tender new buds. This would be dangerous enough for the average animal, but is even more so for the porcs because they may fall on and stab themselves with their own quills. This is common enough, in fact, that porcupines have evolved to have an antibiotic coating on the quills which helps to prevent infection and speed healing.

This is also good news for Fido, should his curiosity get the better of him. The danger for Fido is more in quill tips breaking off under the skin, since these can potentially get infected. Like a fishing hook, the quills have microscopic backwards-pointing barbs that prevent the quill from easily being pulled out. However, if the tip does break off, it should eventually work its way out of the skin on its own, like a splinter might. A single porcupine might sport up to 30,000 quills, ranging in length from half an inch to four inches (1.2 to 10 cm), so it won’t miss a few dozen should it need to shed them in defense.

Porcupine

The quills are really just modified hairs, made of the same materials that form our fingernails. And like our hairs, they are controlled by tiny muscles in the skin attached to connective tissue around their bases. When these muscles are pulled tight, the quills stand on end, just like the hairs on your arm do when you’re cold. Porcupines have more control over these muscles than we do of ours, however.

Contrary to popular myth, porcupines can’t throw their quills, but they do release very easily. When the porcupine is relaxed and the quills flat, there is a fair bit of give in the connective tissue and muscles, but when tightened, the connective tissue tears easily. When a predator (or curious dog) applies pressure to the quill when it is standing upright, it pushes the quill backwards into the skin slightly, just enough to tear the connective tissue, which releases the quill from the skin. Studies have shown that it requires 40% less force to pull a quill out when the muscles are tight than when they are relaxed, a mechanism that helps prevent the porcupine from stabbing itself in climbing accidents.

Porcupine

Porcupines are rodents, and the North American Porcupine is the third largest rodent, behind capybaras and beavers. They have the same big rodent teeth that beavers do, and they put them to good use. Trees are their natural diet, of course, but of human wood products, they are partial to plywood, because of the salts added to it during the curing process. They’ll also target road salt used in the winter, both at the side of the road and where it accumulates on soft parts of vehicles.

And, of course, the answer to the question I know you’ve all been asking – how do porcupines mate? Well, let’s just say there’s not a lot of cuddling going on. The female, when she is receptive to a suitor, will curl her broad tail over her back. The underside is barbless, and if the male porcupine, who stands on his hind legs during the act, touches anything of the female it’s only the underside of her tail. On a related note, baby porcupines do have quills when born, but they’re soft, like your fingernails when you climb out of the shower. Within a few hours they have hardened enough to be effective protection.

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17 responses to “Porc and pine

  1. Very cool encounter! I appreciate the explanation of the porcupine’s traits. Some I knew, but some I didn’t: I’m especially enthralled with how much more easily the quills will release when the porcupine is tensed up as opposed to being relaxed. It makes sense, of course.

    • It does make intuitive sense, but I hadn’t really given it much thought either, till now. I guess I’d just assumed that, like with our own hair, you tug on it and it comes out.

  2. Simply fascinating! I only became aware of porcupines in trees this spring (no porcupines here) and was totally amazed! Thought you might have a picture of their scat to accompany the excellent description. Now I can label a few photos in my “Whose poop is this” photo folder!

    • I do! Somewhere. I spent about 10 minutes searching through my computer trying to find what I did with that darned photo. Never did find it, though I searched all the folders I thought I could possibly have put it. The problem was it was just the raw photo, still labeled IMG1234, so I couldn’t just do a search. If I turn it up, I’ll post it.

    • Coincidentally, while out hiking yesterday I just happened across a pile of porcupine poop. I took a photo and added it into the porcupine post, so it should be there for reference now! Never did find that one on my hard drive.

      • OMG!… I can believe that porcupine is died l0l. i soo hate that porcupine. do u know why do they call him or her a porcupine. because hes or her is poor. what a losers l0l. pCee OUTT!….

  3. What a fabulous encounter! We’re glad you had your camera this time. We ran into a skunk yesterday, and of course were camera-less.

    We don’t often get porcupines around us, though just a little bit north they’re much more common. We really appreciated all the great info you provided here — we learned a lot. Thanks!

    • Thanks, K&R. Isn’t that always the way? I think it must be some sort of cousin law to Murphy’s – the most interesting nature observations will be when you don’t have your camera, and its corollary, if you do happen to have your camera, you most certainly will have the wrong lens on it such that the opportunity will be missed while you fiddle with switching lenses.

  4. wow, I can’t believe you actually came across one in the wild! We have one at the zoo named Ernie and he’s a doll, totally adorable and the friendlies little guy. I mean, charming! Who knew they could be so? Here’s a little movie of him….

    http://naturegirrrl.blogspot.com/search/label/Porcupines

  5. Pingback: Tay Meadows Tidbit – Porc in a Tree « the Marvelous in nature

  6. Pingback: Tracking the porcupine « the Marvelous in nature

  7. fcken porcupine .. lmao!!!! i dont like this animal because it almost killed me!

  8. i was a little girl. i was walking in the bushies l0l. i was almost lost. but this porcupine helped me. from way back home.

  9. i rely appreciate you sharing your time and photos with us i have thought for years i have been seeing porcupine scat but i have seen so much lately i was thinking it had to be a different critter because i have not seen Mr. porcupine himself just droppings even right in my sled dog yard and all around the cabin the stuff is everywhere i well keep my eyes out for him or them a little closer i really like these guy’s agian thanks for your time frank

  10. is porcupine poop toxic…like….floor of old barn covered in it?

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