The porcupine is the second largest rodent in North America, behind the beaver. It’s covered in thick, stiff hairs that have formed into sharp quills that it uses to defend itself from any predator foolish enough to attack it.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order – Rodentia
Family – Erethizontidae
Subfamily - Erethizontinae
Genus - Erethizon
Species – E. dorsatum
Common Name – North American Porcupine, Canadian Porcupine, Common Porcupine, Quill Pig or Quill Cat (regional, mainly Northeastern U.S.)
The porcupine is a large rodent that can grow to almost three feet long and weigh as much as 15 lbs., though in rare cases they can reach almost 40 lbs. These animals are covered in up to 30,000 quills – hairs that have evolved into stiff, thick quills that can be used for defensive purposes. These quills are barbed to make them difficult to remove once stuck in an attacker, and their tails are also covered in quills, allowing them to swing it at predators to ward them off.
Porcupines lay their quills flat against their bodies when mating so they don’t pose a threat to each other. Once pregnant, the female’s gestation lasts about 200 days. After giving birth to a single baby, the mother will care for it for the next few months until it is old enough to forage on its own.
Porcupines have poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and touch are highly developed to assist them in finding food at night, when they are most active. They feed on vegetation, including twigs, roots, berries, and even tree bark.
They have many avenues to avoid predation, beyond just their quills. They can also produce a skunk-like odor to ward off enemies, and will flee into trees where most predators cannot follow. One notable exception is the fisher, a relative of the weasel that preys on porcupines. They will target the animal’s face and underbelly, which are the only areas not covered by protective quills.
Porcupines are long lived animals, and can reach up to 30 years old in the wild.
The name “porcupine” comes from the French word “porcespin” which means literally “quill pig”. There are two types of rodents called porcupines, the Old World porcupines of Europe, Asia and Africa (Hystricidae) and the New World porcupines (Erethizontidae) of the Americas. Though both types are rodents that have developed defensive quills, the families are not closely related.
Overall, the North American porcupine is considered a species of Least Concern, meaning it is not facing imminent threats to its existence. However, it is less common in the southern parts of its range, and is considered a species in need of conservation by the state of Maryland. It is also listed as endangered in Mexico. Hunting and habitat loss are the chief factors that affect porcupine populations.