Porcupines are rodents with a coat of sharp spines, or quills, that defend them from predators. They are indigenous to the Americas, Southern Asia, Europe, and Africa. Porcupines are the third largest of the rodents, behind the capybara and the beaver. Most porcupines are about 25–36 in (64–91 cm) long, with an 8–10 in (20–25 cm) long tail. Weighing 12–35 lb (5.4–16 kg), they are rounded, large and slow. Porcupines come in various shades of brown, gray, and the unusual white. Porcupines' spiny protection resembles that of the unrelated erinaceomorphhedgehogs and monotremeechidnas.
The common porcupine is a herbivore. It eats leaves, herbs, twigs and green plants like clover and in the winter it may eat bark. The North American porcupine often climbs trees to find food. The African porcupine is not a climber and forages on the ground. It is mostly nocturnal, but will sometimes forage for food in the day. Porcupines have become a pest in Kenya and are eaten as a delicacy. A male porcupine urinates on a female porcupine prior to mating, spraying the urine at high velocity.
The name porcupine comes from Middle Frenchporc espin (spined pig). A regional American name for the animal is quill pig.
The eleven Old World porcupines tend to be fairly big, and have spikes that are grouped in clusters.
The two subfamilies of New World porcupines are mostly smaller (although the North American Porcupine reaches about 85 cm or 33 in in length and 18 kg or 40 lb), have their quills attached singly rather than grouped in clusters, and are excellent climbers, spending much of their time in trees. The New World porcupines evolved their spines independently (through convergent evolution) and are more closely related to several other families of rodent than they are to the Old World porcupines. Porcupines have a relatively high longevity and had held the record for being the longest-living rodent, until it was recently broken by the Naked mole rat.
Quills come in varying lengths and colors, depending on the animal's age and species.
Porcupines' quills, or spines, take on various forms, depending on the species, but all are modified hairs coated with thick plates of keratin, and they are embedded in the skin musculature. Old World porcupines (Hystricidae) have quills embedded in clusters, whereas in New World porcupines (Erethizontidae), single quills are interspersed with bristles, underfur and hair.
Quills are released by contact with them, or they may drop out when the porcupine shakes its body. New quills grow to replace lost ones. From ancient times, it was believed that porcupines could throw their quills at an enemy, but this has long been refuted.
Porcupines are only occasionally eaten in western culture, but are very popular in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, where the prominent use of them as a food source has contributed to significant declines in their populations.
More commonly, their quills and guardhairs are used for traditional decorative clothing. For example, their guardhairs are used in the creation of the Native American"porky roach" headdress. The main quills may be dyed, and then applied in combination with thread to embellish leather accessories such as knife sheaths and leather bags. Lakota women would harvest the quills for quillwork by throwing a blanket over a porcupine and retrieving the quills it left stuck in the blanket.
Porcupine quills have recently inspired a new type of hypodermic needle. Thanks to backward-facing barbs on the quills, when used as needles, they are particularly good at two things – penetrating the skin and remaining in place.
A pair of North American porcupines in their habitat in Quebec
Porcupines occupy a short range of habitats in tropical and temperate parts of Asia, Southern Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Porcupines live in forests, deserts, rocky outcrops and hillsides. Some New World porcupines live in trees, but Old World porcupines stay on the rocks. Porcupines can be found on rocky areas up to 3,700 m (12,100 ft) high. Porcupines are generally nocturnal but are occasionally active during daylight.
^Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, s.v. "porcupine" . Retrieved July 20, 2010.
^Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "quill" . Retrieved July 20, 2010.
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