By Vern and Lori Gieger
Hairy Quill Pigs
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
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.