The North American Porcupine

 The North American Porcupine

By Terri Estes

Do you know what a porcupine is? Did you know that porcupines live in New York State?  I must admit that, while I knew a little something about these amazing creatures, I had no idea that they were residents of New York.  A porcupine is a type of rodent known for its sharp quills, which are used for defense against predators. The quills are modified hairs made of keratin, the same material found in human hair and fingernails. When threatened, a porcupine can raise its quills, making itself appear larger and more formidable to potential predators. Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot throw, or shoot their quills at predators. Their quills are very lightly attached, so come off easily.  If a predator gets quills embedded in its skin, it causes severe pain and discomfort and sometimes infection.

There are multiple species of porcupines, but they can be categorized into two types: Old World porcupines and New World porcupines. Old World porcupines are found in Europe, Asia and Africa. They are generally larger than New Worlds, with larger bodies, weighing 11 to 40 lbs, and have longer quills. New World porcupines are found in the Americas, from Canada to South America.  They weigh 9 to 30 lbs and have shorter, sharper quills that are individually barbed.

The most common New World porcupine is the North American porcupine. This is the kind that can be found in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountain regions right here in New York State. They tend to inhabit areas with dense vegetation and ample food sources. Porcupines are primarily herbivorous, feeding on leaves, bark, twigs, and other plant materials. They have strong teeth adapted for gnawing on vegetation. This is our nation’s second largest rodent, second only to the beaver. They are shy, nocturnal creatures and they don’t hibernate. Porcupines are not known to be aggressive and generally mind their own business. They are great climbers and spend much of their time in trees. You would think that these animals, sporting natures greatest body of armor would have few predators, but they are slow-moving and often preyed upon by lynx, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, great horned owls, mountain lions and fishers. The porcupine has no quills on its head or belly and some predators have learned how to grab them by the neck and flip them over to expose their unprotected underside.

Female porcupines have the longest gestation period of any rodent at around 210 days. They usually give birth to a single offspring called a porcupette. They are born with soft quills, which harden in a few days. These babies stay with their mothers for up to a year until they can be self-sufficient. Porcupettes are extremely adorable, but unfortunately, not very cuddly for obvious reasons!

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