Family Erethizontidae - New World Porcupines

Erethizon dorsatum - Porcupine


WEST VIRGINIA WILDLIFE - Porcupine are abundant throughout the coniferous forests of Canada and western US.  They are also found in the mixed hardwood-conifer habitat of New England. They prefer areas of hemlock and sugar maple.  They are commonly found only 100 miles north of West Virginia, in PA, weighing 10-30 pounds.  The coat consists of three kinds of hair; the long, soft, woolly underfur; the long, stiff guard hairs, and the 30,000 3-4" quills.  Dens can usually be recognized by the large piles of droppings, as well as the clipped twigs around the area.  Baby porcupettes begin feeding on green vegetation at two weeks, although they nurse until two months old.  They feed on herbaceous plants, including grasses, fruit, roots, buds, seeds leaves and twigs during the summer.  Only in winter do they earn their reputation of feeding on the cambium of tree bark, with a preference for smooth-barked trees, like aspen, willow and cottonwood.  They are also fond of salt.  

Porcupine have been documented in the historic range of West Virginia through droppings found in an old cave den on Cave Mountain, Pendleton County.  The 1947 "Mammals of Virginia" states that there had been reports of porcupines on Spruce Knob, Pendleton County.  With numerous sightings and three road kills over the past few decades, especially recently, and with known low-density populations of porcupines in Allegheny and Garrett counties in western Maryland, it appears likely that they will slowly move into West Virginia and become established here in the future. 

SMITHSONIAN (?) - Porcupines, along with skunks and rattlesnakes, are equipped with specialized defense mechanisms. Porcupine have up to 30,000 specialized hair, or quill. The longest quills (4") are found on the back and flanks of the animal - but watch out for the shorter ones that can lash out and get you from the tail. The quills work into the skin due to the barbs. Pet porcupines (say what?) are known to playfully slap their owner's leg with only the smooth side of the tail, implying a knowledge in the porcupine as to it's abilities to do harm. Unlike other large rodents like beaver and woodchucks, porcupine haven't seemed to adapt well to man's habitat alteration. Two families exist, one Old World (exclusively ground dwelling, numbering 20 species) and one New World (mainly arboreal, with 23 species, only one North American species, this one coming up over the Panama isthmus some 3 million years ago.) They don't hibernate. They crave sodium, including bones, outer bark of some trees, yellow pond lilies, and human clothing or wooden handles. Animals are solitary, except good wintering sites where several may gather. Late summer they are known to gather 10 to 15 in a raucous group for unknown social reasons. Fall mating begins with males spraying receptive females with urine. Males are polygamous. Gestation periods of 210 days are among the longest of all mammals - one kit per litter. Commonly, as with most mammals, immature males will leave the natal territories to take up residency elsewhere. In the case of the porcupine, it's the female that takes a hike in early fall. Males aren't very territorial, except in mating season. Perhaps this is due to the female spending 80 % of her life caring for young, thus needing a permanent home base. The fisher is the main predator of porcupines. In Wisconsin, the reintroduction of fisher in the 60's show a very happy fisher pop of over 6,000, with porcupine becoming uncommon in certain areas. Porcupine habitat can be improved by leaving large cavity trees which provide defense from fisher.

PENNSYLVANIA WILDLIFE (VOL. XIX, NO.2) The common name, porcupine, comes from two Latin words; "Porcus", which means swine and "spina" which refers to thorn. Porcupines are the second largest rodent in North America, second to beaver. Males can weigh up to 35 pounds. Normally, porcupines carry their quills smoothly along their body. When threatened, muscle contractions cause the shafts to rise for defense. Each quill has a needle-shaped tip and is covered with hundreds of minute, overlapping, diamond-shaped scales. If impaled by quills, cut the ends of the quills off, to allow the air to escape, easing the pain. They have excellent smell, but poor eyesight. They are active throughout the year, spending days in their dens during severe winter weather. Males play no part in child rearing, and the mother pays little attention to the young after weaning in eight weeks. After six months, the "porcupettes" are on their own. In winter, if dens are not available, porkies will spend the winter in a station tree, usually an evergreen. This "home tree" will sport a number of chewed branches. Several porkies may use the same winter den, but will be solitary in summer. Winter home ranges may be as small as 20 acres, with summer ranges expanding to upwards of 75 acres. Most of the porcupines reside in the extensive forests of the north and southcentral region. Their numbers, and range appear to be expanding.