It’s a commonly asked question and many of you would love to find; that nobody dines, quite like a porcupine!
Porcupines – A Brief Overview
Before the main question can be answered accurately, it’s a good opportunity to get to know exactly what makes a porcupine and what role they play in their ecosystems. It’s extremely useful to know the animals that exist in the wild and local area, especially for hitchhikers, campers, and animal filmmakers, so that you know if animals in the vicinity pose a threat to you.
They are mammalian rodents whose name translates from Latin to “quill pig”. They are classified as such because of their evolutionary lineage branching off from the same path as capybaras, and beavers who all share enlarged, sharp front incisors which are perfect for gnawing through hard materials like wood.
At first glance, a porcupine is not an animal you want to chase and that’s exactly why it has developed its effective spiny defense system that’s almost certain to deter any would-be attacker. The spines on their back are referred to as quills.
A Porcupines Diet
Porcupines are generally herbivorous, preferring to chow down on delicacies such as tree bark and roots but they are not too picky at all and some are not as innocent as you may think. To answer the question more specifically would mean looking into individual species and their geographical location.
Other than the main preference of bark and roots; foliage, fruit, shoots and sometimes insects have been recorded to be devoured by species all over the globe. There have however been records of porcupine scavenging the meat from animal carcasses too, which they have dragged back to their dens to consume; they’re not picky at all!
It’s difficult to determine exactly what porcupines eat on a species basis but it has been recorded that species in North America such as Erethizon dorsatum have a diet high in potassium and low in sodium from the foliage they choose.
Their diet high in potassium has led them to gnaw on the wood of outhouses in camping grounds because (as disgusting as it is) the urine soaked wood is particularly appealing and give them the sodium they need, making them somewhat a menace to campground owners.
Their sodium craving has them gnawing away at such a high variety of unexpected food sources due to salts emitted by humans and animals as they sweat or that just naturally occur in the composition of wooden materials. Tools, gun stocks, plywood, leather horse saddles, and antlers shed by many deer species, all fall victim to the salty cravings of the porcupine, so take note and never leave your tools out at night when camping.
Types of Porcupines
There are 29 species of porcupine which are separated into two families: old world porcupines (Hystricidae) and new world porcupines (Erethizontidae) each containing three genera. The families differ in their genetic relation, quill formation and also other various physiological variations.
Old World Porcupines – Hystricidae
There are 11 species within the old world porcupine family; they tend to be nocturnal and larger than the new world family with a couple of exceptions. They are found in southern Europe, South East Asia, throughout India and Africa.
These porcupines tend to have quite stocky and heavy builds. Their spines are either flattened or cylindrical in shape and form in clusters on their body as opposed to new world porcupines whose quills are separated rather than bunched together.
Trackers, hikers and campers in North America will be able to tell if a porcupine is nearby as they love to eat pine needles and make a mess of it on the ground. This could be mistaken for many other animals but as expert trackers will know, the urine of a porcupine has a very particular, sweet pine odor specific to them.
New World Porcupines – Erethizontidae
The other 18 species of porcupine fall into the new world family; the species of which are all found in North and South America, and Canada. Similar to their cousins, they are stocky and rounded in build but they differ for their complete upper lips and rooted molars.
Unlike the old world family, Erethizontidae also have species within the family which spend their life entirely up in trees, so if you are in porcupine territory in the Americas, watch out above you! They often have tails that help with their grip (prehensile tails) similar to monkeys and other tree-dwelling mammals.
They can also be nocturnal but this is not as strict as the old world ones and there are species which are active during daytime.
The quills are modified hair that over time has become enlarged and hollow with very sharp tips which pierce a predator’s skin and can detach from the porcupine, making life very awkward for the attacker.
It is, however, a myth that these quills can be launched by the porcupine, they are simply quite loosely attached to the body whilst also sometimes featuring barbs, enabling them to stick more firmly into the predator and detach from the quill pig.
They usually cover the porcupine’s body, sometimes even being around their face. The size of the spikes can depend on the porcupine’s species with one of the largest belonging to the African Crested Porcupine as stated by National Geographic. New world porcupines tend to have shorter quills which you could describe as barbs rather than spines
They’re not really aggressive creatures and will give warning to a threatening presence by shaking their quills, giving off a rattling sound to try and deter any would-be attackers.