Por­cu­pines, one of the Big Land’s more un­usual characters

The Labradorian - - Editorial - Gary Shaw

As those among us who spend any amount of time in the out­doors, there is lit­tle doubt that we have had an en­counter with one of our res­i­dent Por­cu­pine’s.

The North Amer­i­can por­cu­pine, also known as the Cana­dian por­cu­pine or com­mon por­cu­pine is a large ro­dent, with the beaver be­ing the only ro­dent in North Amer­ica that is larger than the por­cu­pine.

These guys took the long ride a very long time ago to be here with us. Their an­ces­tors rafted their way from Africa to Brazil over 30 mil­lion years ago. They then mi­grated to North Amer­ica af­ter the Isth­mus of Panama rose, three mil­lion years ago. It must have been quite a stroll for these cum­ber­some and short­legged crea­tures to make their way to Labrador.

Por­cu­pines are usu­ally dark brown and in Labrador they can be seen to be al­most black, with some white high­lights sprin­kled over their backs. Their bod­ies have a short stocky build with a small face, short legs and thick quill filled tail.

The por­cu­pine is the only North Amer­i­can an­i­mal that has nat­u­ral an­tibi­otics in its skin. These an­tibi­otics are there to pre­vent any in­fec­tion that may re­sult from a fall from a tree, that find their quills stuck in the ground. They fall more of­ten that you would think be­cause of the temp­ta­tion of the ten­der buds on the outer branches of the tree that can’t sup­port their weight as they move fur­ther out on the branches.

The thing that is a dis­tin­guish­ing fac­tor on the por­cu­pine is the coat of quills that it has. A full grown adult can have 30,000 quills that cover its en­tire body, other than its un­der­belly, face and feet. These quills are mod­i­fied hairs that are formed into a sharp, barbed, and hol­low spine. Although the pri­mary use is for pro­tec­tion from preda­tors, they do pro­vide some in­su­la­tion dur­ing the cold weather.

When the por­cu­pine feels threat­ened, they con­tract mus­cles near their skin, which will cause the quills to stand up and out­ward on their body. They do not throw their quills but they are much eas­ier to de­tach in this po­si­tion and when they swing their tail at their at­tack­ers.

In the sum­mer months they eat twigs, roots, stems and berries with no veg­e­ta­tion off lim­its. Dur­ing the win­ter months, they feed pri­mar­ily on conif­er­ous nee­dles and tree bark.

When they need to de­fend them­selves they first emit a strong odour that they have when they are agi­tated. They will then dis­play their quills and make a click­ing sound with their teeth.

If their preda­tor con­tin­ues its at­tack they will turn around and use their tail full of quills as a de­fen­sive tool.

Although these mech­a­nisms usu­ally work, the last line of de­fense for the por­cu­pine is to climb a tree. Wolves, coy­otes and bears will seek them out for food, but will not soon for­get an en­counter with the por­cu­pines quills.

Por­cu­pines are not hi­ber­na­tors. Dur­ing the sum­mer, they rest in the trees, and in win­ter they re­main close to the dens they have made.

Breed­ing oc­curs in the fall and they are soli­tary an­i­mals other than this time. The preg­nancy lasts 202 days and they give birth to a sin­gle baby each year. Although their quills will harden soon af­ter birth, they rely solely on their mother dur­ing the first two weeks of their lives and con­tinue to nurse for four months while learn­ing to feed on small and ten­der shrubs.

We cer­tainly have them among us in the “Big Land” and although they don’t ap­pear to be much of a threat to us, they can cer­tainly do some dam­age to the ply­wood on our cab­ins. Salt is used in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process of ply­wood, which is the big draw for them.

Por­cu­pines are edi­ble and for some folks are a great treat. They are easy to har­vest and pro­vide a good meal if you are so in­clined.

At the end of the day, they are a reg­u­lar part of our ecosys­tem and as long as we keep them away from our cab­ins, we could eas­ily be stuck with a much worse neigh­bour.

A por­cu­pine — more than meets the eye.

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