Who knew porcupines could be so cute?
Like the Otterly Wonderful Encounter, this was a chance meeting and very sweet. I was heading back to my car after a few hours mushrooming and I saw this little one waddling right next to the trail. I think it’s a young one since it was only about 14 inches long. Adults are much bigger, but the best bit is that porcupine juveniles are called porcupettes!
Look at that sweet little face! They are North America’s 2nd largest native rodent after the beaver. Adults range from 2 to 3 feet in length and weigh between 18 and 35 pounds. Females usually have one kit at a time which is really low for a rodent, and she is pregnant for around 200 days. Beavers go 128 days. The old joke about how do porcupines have sex (very carefully) is true – they flex their skins to flatten their quills when they mate so not to injure each other. Nice that. Romantic even.
But if a porcupine does get stuck a quill they have a defense – built in antibiotics in the skin (and all along the quills, more about that later). They’re the only mammal in North America to have such a handy thing and it’s mostly because they fall out of trees quite a bit. They’re excellent climbers and the quills on the underside of the tail are used like a brace when climbing, but sometimes they go out on a branch too far in order to reach those tasty buds and down they go. Ouch!
I really wanted to pick this little guy up and give it a smooshy hug, but bad idea. The quills are hollow, modified hairs that vary in texture and size where they grow which is basically on the back and tail. Feet and faces are fuzzy as are bellies. They can’t launch them at you, but if one turns very fast, especially in the face of a predator, they dislodge after hitting something. Each quill has to be depressed lightly in order to dislodge from the skin. Because the densest area of quills is on the rump, they turn their backs as a defense and slap their tails at whatever is bugging them. Quills come off and are stuck in the face of whatever hapless animal hasn’t yet figured out not to mess with them. The quills are barbed and covered in a waxy grease-like substance that contains a stinky musk. So not only are you in a lot of pain, your eyes are probably watering and your nose running. But at least you won’t probably get an infection due to that antibiotic in the waxy stuff. Super!
So this little porcupette was easy to get close to and hopefully it climbed down and didn’t fall. The whole time I was 10 to 12 feet from it and I wasn’t sad that I didn’t have the 100-400mm with me because the 35-100mm was enough. Plus it’s a brighter lens and I shot nearly wide open the whole time. Porkies are easy to sneak up on because they don’t see very well, but they do smell and hear better and so it’s still wise to not startle or scare them. This little one was aware of me most of the time, but because I was still and quiet it would just go about its business pretty naturally.
When they feed on the ground they are after twigs and bark, nuts like acorns and plants with soft leaves like clover and sometimes skunk cabbage. They like some flowers and berries, too. I didn’t read anything about mushrooms figuring into the diet, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Flying squirrels (another rodent) eat almost nothing else.
It stayed close to the base of this tree and when it looked like it might climb up to safety, I backed off and was very quiet and still for an even longer time. Reviewing the video I shot I see that its little heart appeared to be beating pretty rapidly sometimes, so now I feel pretty bad about making it so nervous. Not enough to climb away from me though and so I think we ended well. When it noticed me again for the final time, I crept slowly away and left it. From a distance up the trail I watched it amble up the hill and out of sight. Back into the deeper forest where other hikers wouldn’t notice it if they came by after me.
The scientific name for the North American Porcupine is Erethizon dorsatum and one way of translating means ‘the animal with the irritating back’, which is fun, but the common name has wonderful etymology, too. It’s a derivation of the French word porcespin which translates to ‘thorn pig’ and itself derives from Latin porcus (pig) and spina (thorny/spiny). If you check out the photo above you can see a little of why it is called that. The nose is remarkably mobile and snuffly, like a pig snout. When on the ground like this one, they root in a similar way, but mostly in the leaf litter and ground plants, not into the soil. Most Native American languages use the words for quill in their naming of these little snufflers. Oh and check out those heart-shaped nostrils!!
In the shot below it was clicking its teeth together in a chattery sort of way, which it did from time to time. It’s a sign of agitation or nervousness and is the precursor to a stink bomb response similar to a skunks’ if the annoying thing doesn’t go away. When all else fails, you get the quills. You’d think they’d be pretty impervious to predators, but quite a few things regularly kill and eat them, especially young ones like this. Mustelids like wolverine and fishers get them as do wolves, coyotes, cougars, black bears and even great horned owls. The most successful porcupine hunters are the climbers – fishers and mountain lions. If they can avoid the quills they can tire the animal and eventually go in for the kill. Sad, but porcupines are not at risk of depopulation in pretty much all of their range. Sadder still is the number of them killed by cars – they are slow and can’t see well and so this is a big cause of death for them. Earlier this year I shooed another young one off the road to relative safety. Important as they are so helpless in this situation.
They are mostly solitary critters except for mating season and moms raising babies (dad does a bunk), but sometimes in winter they will den together. They don’t hibernate and probably not a lot of cuddling is involved, but hey, it’s something. They live for about 30 years. There are several subspecies of Erethizon dorsatum, which may account for some of the color differences you see in different populations.
Phew! Everything you always wanted to know about porcupines, but were too tired to go look up. But isn’t it the cutest thing (Sally voice as she waxes about her Sweet Baboo, Linus)?
I’ve never heard the term “thorn pig” but it makes perfect sense. I might actually prefer it!😉
I kind of do too. Funny little things.
Fascinating, Kris! Excellent photos of this little fellow. Have never seen one in real life. Enjoyed your info on porcupines.
Thanks Jane. The things I learned were a little surprising. Nature is always doing that to me. Although I’ve seen and photographed them before, these are by far my best photos.
I would love to cuddle up to something so cute – but, point taken, I won’t! Such wonderful information about a fascinating animal and you are so lucky to have the opportunity to meet one, and thanks for the beautiful photos.
Picky little things, but so cute and yeah, it was a nice and memorable encounter with this little one. I hope it continues and lives a long and poke-y little life.
I couldn’t agree more!
Awesome shots and great facts! Here is another one you can add…the quills are used in Native American jewelry. I had a pair of earrings made of the quills for years and loved them as much as I do these cute slow creatures.
Thanks so much and now you mention it, I have seen either artifacts or recreations of the jewelry made with quills. No doubt those hollow wonders could be put to good use.