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9 Prickly Facts About Porcupines

Porcupines are largely known for one defining characteristic that tends to keep humans and predators at a safe distance. But while their famous quills are something to be feared, these animals as a whole are not. Indeed, like the neighbor or co-worker whose intimidating tattoos belie a sweet disposition, porcupines have proved to be compelling animals to watch and study for those who dare to get a closer look. Here are nine facts to further prick your interest in these delightfully bizarre rodents.

The Two Porcupine Families Are Not Closely Related

Porcupines are classified into one of two families. New World porcupines, which live in North, Central, and South America, are primarily arboreal herbivores. Old World porcupines, native to Europe, Asia, and Africa, are largely terrestrial and sometimes also consume meat. The two families have additional differences when it comes to physiological features such as quill density; Old World species showcase clusters of these stiff hairs, while their New World counterparts sport single quills interspersed with fur. Although the two families share a name and common characteristics, they are not considered to be closely related.

Only One New World Porcupine Species Lacks a Prehensile Tail

Most New World porcupines enjoy the benefits of a prehensile tail, which helps these tree-climbing mammals grip branches as they scamper above forest floors. The lone New World species forced to survive without such assistance is the common North American porcupine, which, as the largest and heaviest member of the family, probably could use the extra help for balance. The lack of a prehensile tail doesn't dissuade them from climbing trees, although it does occasionally result in an unlucky creature taking a tumble. Fortunately, this species sports something of a natural antibiotic on its quills, which keeps infections at bay should the animal impale itself after a long fall.

They Can’t "Shoot" Their Quills

Some porcupine species boast up to 30,000 quills, which typically lie flat across most of the body but spring to attention when their owner feels threatened. Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot "shoot" their quills; they simply shed old ones, with new ones constantly growing at a rate of 1 millimeter every two days until fully developed. Although they’re not poisonous, the quills of New World porcupines are especially dangerous because of barbed tips that flare open amid the warmth and moisture of a wound.

They Face Their Greatest Predatory Threat From a Member of the Weasel Family

Although the porcupine boasts an intense defense against predators such as bears, wolves, lynx, and eagles, it tends to have its paws full when confronted by a fisher. A forest-dwelling member of the weasel family, the fisher is far more agile than the lumbering porcupine but about the same height; capable of dodging the swipe of a thorny tail, it moves fast enough to attack a porcupine's face, and can upend its opponent to go after an unprotected belly. The fisher is also a skilled tree climber, and as such can either launch an airborne attack from a branch, or force its slow-footed prey to the disadvantageous terrain of the ground.

They Crave Salt

Visitors to porcupine-populated areas may be surprised to find the sides of a house or car damaged by bite marks. This is partly due to ever-growing porcupine incisors, which — like those belonging to all rodents — require constant nibbling for maintenance. However, porcupines in particular possess a dire need for salt following a winter of subsisting on low-nutrient bark and a spring spent chowing down on high-potassium leaves, grass, and flowers. That means they'll gnaw not only on human sweat-stained tools like canoe handles, but also on house paneling treated with salt-infused paints and stains, as well as tires that bear traces of contact with winter road salt.

They Make Sounds Ranging From Shrieking to Mumbling

Visitors to porcupine-populated areas may be startled by the range of sounds emitted by these nocturnal animals, starting with the unsettling nighttime whining of an individual calling out to a mate. Porcupines also shriek when in distress, and will hiss or chatter their teeth when confronting danger. During calmer times, a mother may communicate with her baby by way of wailing and grunting, while companions exchange friendly clicking noises. Meanwhile, a solitary porcupine may simply mumble to itself as it ambles along.

Females Are Fertile for a Short Period of Time

Porcupine mating is a delicate process, and it's not just because of the sharp quills in close proximity to nether regions. Fertile for only an eight-to-12-hour window, a female North American porcupine will mark her territory with urine and other secretions to arouse the interest of suitors, who then engage in often brutal battles for mating rights. After an alpha male has vanquished his rivals, he may still have to wait a few days for the opportunity to consummate their relationship. When the female finally signals her readiness, the male showers her with more urine before moving in for his long-awaited reward.

New World Species Usually Produce Just One Baby at a Time

Following a drawn-out courtship period and seven months of gestation, New World porcupines typically give birth to just one baby per year (Old Worlders may produce two to four per litter). Although prehensile species reveal no sexual dimorphism at a young age, prompting handlers to seek gender clarification from DNA testing, these porcupettes are otherwise built to quickly get up to speed. Born with their eyes open, babies experience the hardening of their soft quills within an hour, and are capable of supplementing mama's milk with vegetation after two weeks. Fully weaned after three to four months, porcupines are ready to head into the wilderness on their own some six months after arriving in the world.

They Can Be Kept As Pets

In a world home to people who attempt to domesticate wildcats and giant snakes, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some adventurous owners also keep porcupines as pets. On the plus side, these animals are largely docile and subsist on easily acquired food. On the other hand, they can be expensive — one dealer sells individuals for as much as $3,000 — and they require at least 15 to 20 square feet of space in which to roam. But even people with the money and means to support these animals can be impeded by the long arm of the law, as several states have made porcupines illegal to own.

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