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Wednesday's Wildlife: Calgary Porcupines

Thirty-thousand quills have given the North American porcupine a bit of a prickly reputation, but this slow-moving rodent is generally a gentle herbivore, and it also plays an important role in forest ecosystems.



A North American porcupine sleeping in a tree.
Figure 1: A North American porcupine sleeping in a tree.

Unlike its well-known cousin, the African crested porcupine, the North American porcupine is primarily arboreal, meaning it spends most of its time in trees. The bristles of its tail, long claws, and the pebbled texture of its footpads, all help the North American porcupine climb!


A porcupine’s feeding habits create opportunity in the ecosystem.  They are messy eaters, often dropping buds and branches at the base of their “favourite feeding tree” making an offering to white-tailed deer, hares, and other hungry herbivores in the winter months.



A Calgary wildlife comic on the North American porcupine messy feeding habits which helps to feed other herbivores in the winter months when its drops buds and bark on the ground below its favourite feeding tree.
Figure 2: Calgary Wildlife Comic "Prickly Pine Feeder".

As this favourite feeding tree decomposes, it opens canopy space, letting sunlight reach the understory and allowing for new plants and seedlings to grow.  This tree also becomes a snag, or “wildlife tree”.  This is a feeding ground for insectivores (like woodpeckers and salamanders), a home for primary and secondary cavity nesters (such as squirrels, woodpeckers, and owls) and provides perches for large raptors like the bald eagle.


Like all rodents, porcupines have ever-growing incisors (this is called open-rooted dentition).  This allows them to chew through bark and wood.  During the winter, their diet is limited to low-nutrient bark, causing porcupines to develop cravings! Porcupines will seek out salt, which is why porcupines sometimes chew on salt-containing glues in wood-products or the paint on signs.


It is a common misconception that porcupines shoot their quills.  Porcupine quills are largely located on their back (the rosette) and tail and held in place by a spring-like mechanism.  The quills are released by the inward pressure of a predator’s touch.



uvenile North American porcupine displaying black and white quills of rosette on its back.
Figure 3: Juvenile North American porcupine displaying black and white quills in rosette on its back.

Porcupines sometimes fall from trees and can accidentally quill themselves. This may be why porcupine quills carry an anti-biotic coating.


Porcupine quills are hollow, helping them float and swim.  This allows porcupines to forage in ponds and lakes where they will eat aquatic plants like sedges.  The hollow air tubes also help insulate porcupines in the winter!


Porcupines give warnings to other creatures to stay away: they have aposematic colouring like a skunk, with the white patch of quills contrasting the darker surrounding hair.  The quills in the rosette are coated in an oil that releases a repellant odour. They will also chatter their teeth. 


Juvenile North American Porcupine, a porcupette, in a tree.
Figure 4: Juvenile North American Porcupine: a porcupette!

One final fun porcupine fact—did you know baby porcupines are called porcupettes? Isn’t that adorable?  Porcupines have a long gestation period, over two hundred days, after which a single young is born.

 

Please keep pets on leash while walking in grassy areas, especially during the evening hours and keep an eye out for these slow-moving nocturnal herbivores when driving!


If you observe a wild animal in need of help, please call our hotline at:

403-214-1312.

 

 

 

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