Curious Nature: Don’t pet the porcupettes
May 21, 2012
As the temperatures rise and the snow melts, we see the world around us begin to wake up. Trees and plants turn green, animals can find more food, and what is ever so exciting is that babies are born. When we think of cute and cuddly animal babies, we don’t often think of the common porcupine. An image of sharp quills and keeping your distance is more likely. Porcupines, in general, are fascinating animals, but have you ever considered the logistics of two porcupines mating with such a defensive mechanism present?
With more than 30,000 quills, there needs to be a plan in place. In the case of porcupines mating, the females actually do most of the courting. Although the males may fight with one another, the female determines when mating can proceed. The female is apparently aroused when the male urinates on her, and once she has been sufficiently stimulated, she relaxes her quills, raises her tail over her back and the rest you can figure out for yourself. Mating generally occurs in November or December, and after a six- to seven-month gestation period, a single porcupette is born in May or June. Baby porcupines are born with quills, but they are soft and lay flat against their body as to not harm the mother during birth. The quills harden within just about an hour or two of birth. Although porcupettes nurse for as long as four months, they are born with incisor teeth and are eating green vegetation by the time they are a month old.
Porcupines are strictly herbivorous, eating leaves, buds, twigs and the bark of young trees. Porcupines often will strip the bark of trees, leaving apparent evidence of their snacking. Despite their poor eyesight, large, stout body and slow demeanor, porcupines are excellent climbers. They are able to use their sharp, curved claws, the bumpy soles of their feet and the quills on the undersides of their tails to help them climb out onto thin branches of trees. The occasional misplaced foot or loss of balance can, and often does, result in falling out of trees. And, trust me, it is not a short fall. Their quills could cause injury if it were not for the presence of antibiotics in their skin. This prevents infection when they hit the ground and get stuck with one of their own quills. Other predators or even just curious animals are not so lucky.
It is commonly thought that porcupines shoot their quills, but this is not the case. Their quills are loosely rooted in their skin, and upon being disturbed by another animal or potential threat, the porcupine will lash out with its quill-filled tail. These quills detach very easily, lodging themselves deep into the attacker’s flesh. The barbed end of the quill expands, making it very difficult to extract. Most of us have seen the unfortunate outcome of a dog getting too close to a porcupine. For this very reason, porcupines do not have many predators and can live relatively long lives.
Although they are mostly nocturnal animals, you can catch a glimpse of this oversized rodent from time to time waddling along slowly in the woods or out on the limbs of trees stretching to get that delicate bud. These are fun creatures to watch, but keep your distance to avoid ending up on the wrong side of their quills.
Gina Garrett is the youth programs director at Walking Mountains Science Center. She was eagerly awaiting spring this year, and now that it has officially arrived, early, she can’t wait to hike and explore the valley this summer.