Someone mentioned to me that my recent column about porcupines failed to adequately address their most notable feature – the quills. The point is well taken, so here goes:
Q: Do porcupines actually sling their quills through the air like darts?
A: North American porcupines are overzealous acupuncturists and with a slap of their tail can instantly put more than a hundred sharp-pointed quills into a person or other animal. The victim must come into direct contact with one of these prickly rodents to be stuck by a quill. No real porcupines anywhere in the world sling quills through the air like some cartoon porcupines do.
Q: How harmful are a porcupine’s quills if they stick you? Is the wound likely to become infected?
A: Porcupine quills can be deadly but are not, generally speaking, lethal for people. The needle-sharp quills of the North American porcupine have tiny backward-pointing barbs on the end so that when they enter the muzzle of a nosy dog or hungry coyote they send a lasting message. Only a really dumb dog is likely to mess with another porcupine. A predator that gets a handful of quills in the mouth can actually die of starvation. The quills can move through the body in a ratcheting motion as muscles contract because the barbs go forward but not backward. Thus they could end up in an eye, vital organ or joint. According to porcupine expert Uldis Roze, a quill that went into his upper arm passed along the arm around his elbow and emerged three days later in his forearm. At that point, a quill can be readily removed without harm, but if it ends up in the wrong place, the consequences could be disastrous.
I have some quills from a porcupine in Wyoming that tail-slapped a wool coat I dangled in front of it. I later took one of the quills and poked it a quarter of an inch into my hand to see what it felt like. A bit of a stinging sensation not unlike a needle but all-in-all not too bad. The real learning experience came when I set about removing the quill. The tiny backward-pointing barbs conveyed the same message to me that they send to that nosy dog or hungry coyote: don’t mess with porcupines. As a public service, I offer this advice to others who may be curious about porcupine quills: do not try this at home.
Porcupine quills are unlikely to cause a problem from infection because they have an antibiotic coating. Why would porcupines carry a weapon that causes temporary grief for an attacker but does not cause infection? Probably because the animal most commonly stuck by porcupine quills is the porcupine itself. Porcupines frequently fall out of trees, sticking themselves with their own quills. Because porcupines enjoy a diet of leaves, fruits, and bark, they spend much of their time at the end of small, fragile branches in the tops of trees. Plummeting to the ground is apparently a common event.
Q: Do the quills of a porcupine protect it from all predators that might try to eat it?
A: Many predatory animals have been known to attack porcupines. The quills are effective weapons against most attacks from wolves, coyotes, and foxes, which spend little time trying to make a meal of a porcupine. In North America, two predators are known to successfully prey on porcupines – mountain lions and a tree-climbing mammal known as the fisher. Fishers, which belong to the same family of carnivores as minks and otters, are amazingly agile, circling rapidly around the porcupine and attacking the face area, which has no quills. This dining plan still has risks. But it apparently works often enough for the porcupine to have become a common prey of fishers, which also eat smaller rodents, snowshoe hares, and birds. The quills ensure that porcupines have few natural enemies. As with most other wild animals these days, the greatest threat to porcupines is humans.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.