Science has divided the 27 species of porcupines within the Order Rodentia into two families they call the Old World Porcupines (Family Hystricidae, trans. ‘Hallo, bonjour, ciào, guten tag!’ ) and the New World Porcupines (Family Erethizontidae, trans. ‘USA! USA! USA!’). Other than the geography, the criteria separating the two groups aren’t terribly profound — things like who is arboreal (New World), who has rooted molars (New World) and who wears dirty black-and-white striped shirts and rides bicycles down cobblestone streets with a baguette bouncing around in the basket while somehow still looking fabulous (Old World).
Regardless of taxonomic labels, all porcupines are nocturnal. Most species are strict herbivores, though a few will eat an occasional bug or two (usually after watching an episode of Man vs. Wild). But most important, all of them have adopted a creative, if peculiar, manner of defense.
‘Man, this nocturnal-arboreal thing really takes it out of you.’
The thing is, when you make a species-level decision to go down the herbivore road, you simultaneously choose to broadcast your status as a victim. You are, in essence, putting up a giant billboard in the hunting grounds of carnivorous predators that says in a bold sans-serif font: ‘We eat plants so you don’t have to. Try a herbivore tonight!’ There’s also a 30-second TV spot (with voiceover by Christian Slater) meant to sell you to the omnivore demographic. On top of that, there are endless piles of junk mail touting the health benefits of herbivore meat that flood the post boxes of mammalian carnivores after order Carnivora sold their contact list to a direct marketing firm. And to cap it all off, ecosystem energy levels essentially dictate that only a small number of herbivores can be big and intimidating enough to scare off predators, or at very least, the ecosystem gently nudges them in the direction of smaller, more manageable targets.
‘You don’t want none of this keratin horn.’
So it is that the typical small-ish herbivore finds itself with a big, massive target on its fur. Thus, the first order of business is to hit the old whiteboard and think up a defensive strategy that doesn’t involve trampling. One obvious choice is to hide underground. That works. Another option is armor plating. There’s also flying, speed, camouflage, a baseball bat near your bed, and self-defense classes at the local community college. The problem is that it’s all so done…there are only so many ways to avoid being eaten, and they’re all taken.
Or are they? Just when we thought we’d seen everything from the herbivore’s portfolio, the porcupine comes along with an unexpected defensive sensation1.
‘I’m just thinking out loud here, but what if we had detachable spikes for hair?’
As people (like this Animal Reviewer) who are fond of running around referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point at every possible opportunity would say, the idea for a coat of quills had ‘stickiness.’ The porcupine’s quills are mostly composed of keratin (a durable protein that, along with chitin, is always showing up in the multiple choice sections of biology tests so check your work). Their quills also have little barbs at the end that make extraction a long, laborious and painful ordeal that requires pliers and lots of whiskey. Once removed, the relief is short lived. Because now it’s blood infection time2 – everyone’s least favorite time of the year. Meanwhile, the porcupine gets busy regrowing his missing quills. All of a sudden, the question of who is the hunter – and who is the hunted – just got a whole lot murkier.3
Eventually, the quill concept would be eclipsed by the skunk, but for its time, the idea was revolutionary. It immediately and dramatically reduced the numbers of natural predators a porcupine had to worry about. And it is still powerful today. The vast majority of small animals in order Rodentia scurry around in abject terror most of the time, while the porcupine periodically wonders what all the fuss is about. Quills let the porcupine be the porcupine. Unhindered by thoughts of dismemberment that lead most small animals to distraction, the porcupine is free to pursue its myriad porcupine interests.
These interests mostly involve eating wood and looking for salt. New World Porcupines are crazy for the inner bark of coniferous trees. They also seek out clothes, tools and other objects that are coated with the salt from human sweat. In many parts of North America, porcupines have been known to waddle into campgrounds (without paying) for the sole purpose of munching on used canoe paddles because, nutritionally speaking, used canoe paddles are loaded with wood and fairly high in salt.
‘You know what this wood could use is some salt.’
Occasionally, an ambitious mountain lion or a coyote or a particularly stupid domesticated dog (who could just as easily eat from its bowl, but of course that’s too simple) will interrupt the porcupine’s quest for wood and salt. In response, the porcupine will shoot up its infamous quills4, turn its bristling rump in the direction of the predator and ask with a mild inflection of rhetorical sarcasm, ‘So. How hungry are you really?’
Most of the time, the aggressor backs down and the porcupine is off to look for more wood and salt, whistling a Top 40 tune and trying to beat his last high score on his Centipede iPhone app. Then it gets run over by a car.
And thus, the moral of the story is that every defensive strategy has its limits. So heads up out there, herbivores.
1 The porcupine immediately found itself entrenched in a copyright infringement battle with the cactus that lasted six years. Eventually, the case of Porcupine v. Plantae was heard by the Supreme Court of North Dakota. The judges ruled 4-3 in favor of the porcupine after the porcupine’s brilliant attorney (David Boies) sought cover for his client under the established legal principle of the ‘idea-expression divide,’ citing Apple Computer Inc. v. Microsoft Corporation and reading directly from the US Supreme Court decision in Mazer v. Stein: ‘Unlike a patent, a copyright gives no exclusive right to the art disclosed; protection is given only to the expression of the idea—not the idea itself.’ At which point the herbivores in the courtroom erupted in cheer and the cacti poured out into the streets to riot and conserve water. The rest is natural history.
2 Surprise! The up-to 30,000 quills of the world’s third-largest rodent are not sterile. Who’da thunk it. Hope you like sepsis.
3 It’s still the same, but that sounds really deep, so just nod in agreement.
4 Porcupines cannot fire their quills like missiles. That’s a popular misconception that the porcupine makes little effort to correct.