SciSun: On Pins and Needles   Leave a comment

In case you’ve never seen one, this is a Porcupine:

Porcupine WIKI NPS1

“Don't judge me. It's REALLY hard to find a good stylist in the forest”

Technically, this is a North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). There are also Porcupines in Central and South America; and parts of Asia and Africa. While each is a different species, all porcupines are part of the same family of animals (the Erethizontidae), which is part of the larger group of animals we know as Rodents. All porcupines eat plants, live in grassy areas among trees or rocks, are generally nocturnal – more active at night than during the day – and look very similar to each other: All are covered with spiky quills– something like needles, that are actually a modified type of hair. They are very unique and somewhat strange animals, not often seen in their natural world and now, it seems, there are even less of them in areas where until a few years ago they were typical, particularly in the forests and meadows of California.

While California has never been exactly over-abundant with porcupines (although their hair style seems to be popular among some teens), in 2011 scientists and researchers found only fourteen of the spiky fellows (p-pines, not teens) living in the area of Lake Tahoe to the Southern Sierra Nevada. Sadly, they did see eight more that had been killed by cars. Obviously this doesn’t mean there are only fourteen porcupines in the area, but it does indicate far fewer than had been expected, and possibly so few they may no longer be able to overcome some of the problems they have to face – like people cutting down forests and building on grasslands; and poisons set out for rodents like rats and gophers but just as deadly to porcupines; and traps set by people who think porcupines are dangerous or destructive.

Well, you might say, “that’s too bad for the porcupine. But other than being a funny looking animal, what does the porcupine mean to me? In fact, one even attacked my dog and we had to take him to the vet to have the quills removed!”  It’s true that a porcupine has probably never done anything for you – although we think they would make great night guards (“I’ve got quills and I’m not afraid to use them!”) – but it’s not the porcupines’ job to do anything directly for people. The porcupine goes about its life eating plants, and one of its favorite types of food is fresh, tender, tree bark – not the rough type on the outside but the sweet, moist inner bark – the cambium – that P-pine searches for by ripping away the hard outer bark with his strong front claws and tearing strips of inner bark with his two large front teeth that continue to grow throughout its entire life. A lot of this bark-ripping happens to smaller, easy-to-get-at trees that are trying to move into established forests and the porcupines’ dinner slows down these new trees. Fewer small trees trying to push their way into a mature forest is actually bad for the forest environment, leading to less resources for the large trees; and weak large trees mean fewer homes and food for birds and squirrels and other animals; and a forest without large trees results in not enough fallen leaves to hold water or prevent erosion; and forest fires can destroy entire areas of smaller trees and plants while a forest of larger trees often survives a fast-moving fire; and on and on. So what we might see as a goofy porcupine is actually helping balance and maintain the entire forest environment and make our lives safer.

It’s not known if today there are fewer porcupines in other areas, or just the Sierra Nevada, but scientists are working to understand the challenges these important animals face and what can be done to protect them and their environment. If you ever see a porcupine in the forest or field, make a note of your location, take a photo and try to find a ranger or researcher to document what you’ve seen. But please don’t try to chase or harass the porcupine, or any wild animal. And you know better than to try and touch a porcupine.

The belief that a porcupine can ‘shoot’ its quills at something is an urban legend. The quills are attached very loosely and when something brushes by or tries to bite or grab the porcupine, quills come out of the porcupine and go into the attacker. You’d think to anyone who even thinks about attacking, seeing something covered with sharp spikes is warning enough.

Learn more about Porcupines – it sticks with you!

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/porcupine/

http://nature.ca/notebooks/english/amporcu.htm

http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/Plants_Wildlife/rte/rtePorcupine.asp


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