photo of porcupine photo of detail of porcupine quills

A Coat of Many Quills

The porcupine's Latin name Erethizon dorsatum can be loosely translated as "the animal with the irritating back." Its common name porcupine - or thorny pig - comes from the Latin word "porcus" meaning "pig" and "spina" meaning "thorns". Both names are very descriptive of its appearance.

We have two species of porcupine in North America. In the east we have the Canada, with dark brown guard hairs, and in the west the yellow-haired featuring white to yellow guard hairs.

The lowly porcupine is one of our best-known animals but the one least likely to be kept as a pet. It’s definitely not your cute-and-cuddly type.

I came upon an immature porcupine feeding on some tender shoots of alfalfa in the middle of one of our hay fields this week. Although young, it insisted on turning its better side toward me, with quills extended. It was in the open, over 100 m away from the nearest tree, during the early morning and without parental protection. A good demonstration of the faith in has in its ability to protect itself.

The porcupine is also one of our most lackadaisical animals, it does not move far nor does it move very fast. It takes a lot to excite this prickly mammal.

The porcupine has been estimated to have 30 000 quills. There are none on the muzzle, legs and under parts of the body. Each hollow quill is attached to a muscle that pulls it upright when the animal is alarmed. The business end of the hollow quill has several dozen small black barbs that feel slightly rough to the touch but when moist, as in your skin, swell and work the quill further in.

Porcupines are unable to throw their quills. During threatening displays they will thrash their tails causing loose quilts to dislodge and fly about giving the impression they are thrown. If caught in a trap they will often imbed quills in their own skin while struggling to get free. A porcupine is capable of removing these quills or those from another porcupine with its teeth and front paws. An animal that has attacked a porcupine and has a mouth full of quills suffers a great deal of pain but seldom gets infection because quills contain an antibiotic.

The slow moving porcupine is a frequent victim of forest fires and highway traffic. Climbing accidents, disease, especially rabbit fever. Predators such as the fisher and humans take their toll as well.

Porcupines do destroy some trees, chew on wooden guardrails, buildings — particularly those made of plywood, or any other material that contains salt.

A porcupine repellent (trade name Ropel) is available at feed stores. It has a very bitter and unpleasant taste. Chewing animals such as mice, deer and porcupines won’t return for a second taste.

The porcupine is very much a Canadian — unassuming, independent, not one to boast and a bit of a loner; but once riled becomes a very prickly customer.


return to list back | next