Wondrous Wildlife
By Vern and Lori Gieger
Hairy Quill Pigs

     When most of us think about rodents, we think of rats or mice, but not a porcupine. Porcupines are the third largest rodent. Most porcupines are about 25 to 36 inches long, with an 8 to10 inch long tail, and weighing between 12 and 35 pounds. The name “porcupine” comes from combining the Latin for pig and French for spine, hence the nickname “quill pig” for the animal. Hairy porcupines are found in southern Mexico; unlike other species of porcupines they have long thick, soft hair covering its quills. They have rounded large bodies and slow waddling gait.
     Primarily nocturnal, they are active year round. Hairy porcupines inhabit forested areas and prefer rocky areas, ridges, and slopes. Like most rodents the hairy porcupines are vegetarians. How these critters survive on foods with a protein content of only two to three percent is truly amazing. Their diet consists of a variety of shrub and tree leaves. They feed on buds, tender shoots, succulent twigs, roots, seeds, the cambium layer and inner bark of trees. Hairy porcupines are sloppy eaters who drop a lot of greenery; that provides a welcome snack for other inhabitants of the forest. Although they are forest dwellers they are also excellent swimmers.
     To rid their bodies of high levels of potassium from leaves and bark they need sodium. Therefore, their fondness for salt often leads them to campsites; they will gnaw on anything containing salt, such as canoe paddles, axe handles, saddles, gloves, etc. Anything touched by salty human hands is a porcupine magnet.
     The young, usually one, rarely two, are born in April and May. The gestation period is 209 to 217 days. At birth the young porcupine weighs about 450 grams and is larger than a newborn black bear. It is covered with a good coat of blackish hair, the quills are well developed, the eyes and ears are functional, and the incisors and some of the cheek teeth have erupted. The baby suckles for only a short period before beginning to feed on vegetation shortly after birth, and soon becomes entirely dependent upon its own resources. Compared with most rodents, young porcupines grow slowly; and females do not mature sexually until their second fall. The young are able to move about quite briskly shortly after birth. Unlike their somber parents, the babies are quite playful.
     Porcupines have a relatively long life-span. They have been known to live more than ten years. The porcupine’s chief defense is its quills, sharp spines distributed across its back, sides, legs, tail, and head. They may be as dense as 150 per square inch, giving one animal as many as 30,000 quills. Like hair, the quills grow back when they come out.
     Contrary to popular belief, porcupines do not throw their quills. Unfortunate attackers that approach too closely; brush against the animal or are swatted by the tail find themselves embedded with quills. Quills are sharp pointed, fitted with microscopic barbs, and expand on contact with warm flesh. Muscle contractions in a quill victim work the quill deeper, as much as an inch per day unless quills are removed promptly.
     Although the porcupine seems to lead a rather dull, uneventful life, porcupines are a wonderful, necessary member of forest wildlife. Once found in abundant numbers; the hairy porcupine is now listed as endangered.