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North American porcupine

Erethizon dorsatum (Linnaeus, 1758)

North American porcupine diorama in the North American Mammal Hall

Scene:

 Owens Valley, south of Big Pine, California

Background artist:

 Robert C. Clark

Also present:

 Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli),
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

North American porcupines are the second largest rodents in North America (after the beaver). Porcupines are mostly nocturnal, but activity patterns vary depending on the season and the region of the country. They are able to remain active throughout the winter by eating evergreen needles and the inner bark of trees.  In fact, a telling sign of porcupine activity is the presence of trees stripped away of their outer bark.  During the spring and summer months, porcupines switch to softer foods: flowers, berries, tender twigs, and leaves from deciduous plants.

With short legs, naked soles and strong curved claws, porcupines are well-adapted for climbing trees. They are very poor runners, however, and rely on their quills for protection from predators.  Porcupine quills are normally flattened against the body unless the animal is threatened. The quills cannot be thrown but are easily detached and difficult to remove once lodged in an attacker. Porcupines also emit a unique odor that warns potential predators to stay away.  This warning system is particularly effective when the predator has had prior experience with porcupine quills!

The quills are actually highly modified hairs that are stiff, thick and barbed at the tip. The hollow interior of the quill is filled with spongy tissue. Quills cover all parts of the porcupine’s body except the face, belly, inner thighs and underside of the tail.

Like all other rodents, porcupines have ever-growing incisors. The enamel on the front of the incisors is stained orange by iron salts that also serve to strengthen the tooth.

The chief predators of porcupines include the American fisher, puma, wolverine and bobcat.  Fishers are particularly adept at attacking porcupines.


Biological Information

Range map for the North American porcupine

Range:

Most of North America: Labrador to Arizona and California

Habitat:

Forests, mountains, chaparral, sagebrush

Status:

Common and widespread

Diet:

Wide range of plant foods including bark, grasses, leaves, acorns and flowers

Further information about this species may be found on the Animal Diversity Web page for North American porcupines.