How many spiky, furry, brownish, four-legged creatures can you think of?
Well, it turns out there are a lot of different animals fitting this description scattered all over the world!
You can easily confuse the general appearance of a North American porcupine with a lot of different large and smaller rodents. In fact, many other small mammals, belonging to different orders or families, look very similar to the porcupine as well.
Join Floofmania as we take a closer look at the physical characteristics of our favorite quilled rodent, and compare and contrast them with 8 other animals. You might have seen these look-alikes before and misidentified them as North American porcupines, let’s look at them one by one.
How Do We Identify a North American Porcupine?
Table of Contents
- 1 How Do We Identify a North American Porcupine?
- 2 What Porcupine Relatives Are Often Misidentified as North American Porcupines?
- 3 Are There Other Rodents That Have Quills or Spines?
- 4 Are There Other Mammals Covered in Quills?
- 5 Author
Before we dive into the list, let us just go over a quick refresher.
The North American porcupine has a round, stocky body with a small, blocky head, small eyes, and ears. The head to the base of its tail can be anywhere from 24 to 36 inches long, while its thick, club-like tail is about 8 to 10 inches.
Being a tree-dweller, the North American porcupine legs are short and muscular, designed for grasping tree trunks and branches, with long curved claws at the end of each toe. The soles of the feet are furless and pebbled for better grip. The front feet have four toes each while the hind feet have 5 toes.
|Front paw||2.3 – 3.3 inches||1.3 – 1.9 inches|
|Hind paw||2.8 – 4 inches||1.5 – 2 inches|
The fur comes in a variety of colors from brownish yellow, gray, brown, and black. Sneakily mixed in with the coarse fur are their distinctive quills, about three inches long, and covered in backward-facing barbs. The quills are mostly light-colored to stand out against their darker fur when raised.
A full-grown specimen can weigh anywhere between 10 to 40 lbs.
What Porcupine Relatives Are Often Misidentified as North American Porcupines?
Now that we’ve refreshed our mental image of the North American porcupine, let’s meet a few relatives that resemble it.
Here are three cousins of the North American porcupine which are commonly seen in zoos, conservation centers, and Youtube videos. While it is correct to call them porcupines, they are different species and actually look very different – apart from the quills.
African Crested Porcupine
The African crested porcupine is a member of the Old World porcupine family, native to North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Italy. Apart from having quills all over their body and black or brown coloration, they are actually easy to tell apart from the North American species.
- The African crested is a much heavier animal, weighing 29 to 60 lbs. Their overall shape and colors are quite similar to skunks.
- They have a larger head and body, with a distinct “mohawk” or crest of spines running from the top of the head all the way down to the back. The tail is rather short and is concealed by the very large quills on its back end.
- The quills are much longer at 12 up to 21 inches! These longer spines have alternating light and dark bands that make them really stand out as a warning to any would-be predators.
- The front paws have four toes with claws and one regressed thumb (a small stump with no claw). Meanwhile, the hind paws have 5 fully-developed toes with claws.
- Being a terrestrial animal that travels on the ground and burrows for food, its claws are shorter and not as curved compared to its North American cousin.
This species is found in many zoos, and conservation centers and is even sold as pets in the US.
Our next lookalike is a relative found in South and Southeast Asia – the Malayan porcupine. This is another species of the Old World Porcupine family, all of whom are ground-dwellers or terrestrial.
- They are smaller and slimmer looking than the North American cousin, with shorter fur and quills. The head to the base of the tail is 22 to 29 inches, with the tail just 2.4 to 5 inches in length. The average weight is about 11-22 lbs.
- Their fur around the face and neck is quite short, mostly black or dark brown in color. The quills near the face and around the front half of the body are also short and dark, with some light-colored spines along the back of its neck.
- On its rear end, the quills are larger, with black and white banding like the African crested porcupine. When the Malayan porcupine is agitated and the rear quills are raised, it almost looks like a lady’s hoop petticoat.
Now we switch over to South America to get to know another relative that like the North American porcupine, is of the New World Family. This prehensile-tailed porcupine (meaning capable of grasping) is found in the forests of South American countries such as Venezuela and up to the northern regions of Argentina.
- This is another small quilled rodent, weighing just 4-11 lbs. The head to the base of the tail is 12-24 inches in length. The tail that it uses to hang on to branches is rather long at 13-19 inches.
- The quills are short, thick, and tricolor – having a dark base and white or yellow tips which are barbed too. Unlike the North American porcupine, they are not fully covered in fur. They also have no quills on their long, slender tail.
- One of the Brazilian porcupine’s distinct features is a fleshy bulbous nose that looks like a marshmallow, which is an adaptation to help them find food.
- They have the typical claws of a tree climber, long and curved. They also have only four digits on each foot, both front and back.
Fact: North American porcupine love to venture out onto slim branches to feast on new shoots, flower buds, and tender leaves. Their fifth digits or regressed thumbs on the hind feet help anchor them to these smaller branches, but the branches often break under their weight causing them to fall.
Fortunately, their quills are covered with an oil that prevents infection even if they get stuck with their own spines. Also, their front paws with four toes can grasp and pull quills that may have gotten accidentally embedded in their body.
How Do The Porcupine Cousins Compare?
The North American, African crested, Malayan, and Brazilian porcupines are among the most popular members of this extended family of unique rodents.
Sometimes people use their photos interchangeably and mix up who is who. But aside from their differences in appearance, they have very different behaviors, habitats, social structures, and even defense mechanisms.
For example, the North American porcupine is solitary, while the Brazilian can be solitary or live in pairs, while the African-crested and Malayan live in small family groups.
And when in a threatening situation, they all raise their quills as a defense. But while the North American, African-crested, and Malayan charge backward to ward off danger, the Brazilian curls up into a ball when caught!
As you learn more about these fascinating creatures, it is good to remember their distinctive features and how to tell them apart from one another. Here’s a handy cheat sheet to help you remember the differences in the physical appearance of these well-known porcupine species:
|North American||African Crested||Malayan||Brazilian|
|Geographic Location||USA and Canada||North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Italy||South, and Southeast Asia||South America|
|Habitat||Tree-dwelling sometimes dens in rocks and burrows, especially in winter||Terrestrial, dens in hilly and rocky areas in various habitats||Terrestrial, dens in rocky areas near forests or agricultural lands||Tree-dwelling, rarely descend to the ground|
|Weight||40 lbs||60 lbs||22 lbs||11 lbs|
|Head To Base of Tail||36 inches||6 inches||29 inches||24 inches|
|Tail Length||10 inches||6.5 inches||5 inches||19 inches|
|Fur||Yellowish Brown, Brown, and Black||Dark brown or black||Dark brown or black||Sparse dark brown or black hairs|
|Quills||Mostly white or light colored||Light-colored along the back of the head, banded black and white on the rear half of the body||Light-colored along the back of the head, banded black and white on the rear half of the body||Tri-color – white, yellowish, and dark|
|Distinct Features||Small head, rounded body shape, and club-like tail||Massive banded quills reaching up to 21 inches in length||A smaller version of African-crested has spiky ‘skirt’ on its rear half||Large fleshy nose and long prehensile tail|
*All measurements are at the top end of the range
Are There Other Rodents That Have Quills or Spines?
Yes, there are! Under the Order Rodentia, we have the Spiny Rat Family and Spiny Mouse Genus that have spines or bristly needle-like hairs.
These are quite large families and it is rather mind-boggling how many species belong to each. Let’s take a look at one specimen each for the Spiny Rats and the Spiny Mice.
The family of rodents called Echimyidae or ‘Spiny Rats’ includes 78 species spread across Central and South America.
The Armored Rat seen in this video is found in Northern Honduras up to Northern Ecuador. It looks like a large common rat, but with thick spines around the rear half of the body. They eat fruit, insects, and some vegetation.
- Head to the base of the tail length range from about 9 to 13 inches, and the hairless tail adds another 6 -10 inches. A full-grown adult weighs about 0.5 to 1.7 lbs.
- The armored rat’s fur can range from black to reddish brown with a pure white underside. The thick spines on the back and sides are about 1.3 inches long, white at the base and black at the tip.
- There is a theory that the armored rat’s spines aren’t mainly for defense, unlike the North American porcupine’s quills, but to help keep the animal dry and warm in rainy or wet conditions. This is useful as they live in burrows near bodies of water, usually sharing this den with as mated pairs.
- They can break off their tail to confuse or escape predators. Unlike lizards though, their tail does not regrow.
Egyptian Spiny Mouse
This spiky rodent falls under the Family Muridae, of which over 1,000 species have been identified. A representative can be found in any continent, except Antarctica.
As you can tell this is a very successful family of small animals managing to survive in many different types of environments. In fact, the common brown rat and house mice belong to this family.
Within this family is a smaller subgroup called Genus Acomys, which includes all the mice with stiff guard hairs that are like spines or needles.
The species in the video is called an Egyptian Spiny Mouse, also known as a common, Cairo, or Arabian spiny mouse. It is omnivorous, eating insects, snails, seeds, and plants in its native habitats in North Africa.
- The head to the base of the tail length range from 3.5 to 5 inches, with the almost hairless tail roughly the same length. By far the smallest on our list, they weigh anywhere from 1.5 to 3 oz.
- Their sandy brown and greyish brown color suits their original habitat of rocky areas and hot deserts. Spine-like bristles are found along their back. Their tails are known to be weak and can break off when under threat.
- Perhaps the most interesting thing about the African spiny mice subgroup is their quick wound regeneration and their reproductive system which is quite similar to ours. For this reason, they are used for research into human health issues as well.
- Compared to the North American porcupine’s quills, the Egyptian spiny mice’s stiff guard hairs are too soft to deter a predator. They are also very social, unlike their solitary North American relatives.
Fact: North American porcupines are solitary most of their lives, except during mating season and in winter. During the breeding season from September to November, males travel across home ranges and come together to compete for a female that is ready to mate. In winter, porcupines sometimes share rock dens to escape subzero temperatures.
Are There Other Mammals Covered in Quills?
The list doesn’t end here yet! Outside of Order Rodentia, we find a few other curious spiny mammals: the echidna, hedgehog, and tenrec.
The Echidna belongs to the Order Monotremata. This classification of mammals is best known for laying eggs instead of giving birth to live young (yes, they are related to the platypus). There are four species of this ‘spiny anteater’ found in Australia and New Guinea, and unlike our plant-eating porcupines, the echidna feeds on ants, termites, larvae, and worms.
The particular species in the photo is the Short-Beaked Echidna species. These solitary animals are considered the most widespread native mammal in Australia.
- These are small animals of just 12-18 inches in head and body length, with a distinctive pointy snout or beak that adds another three inches. They do have a tiny tail that’s less than an inch long. They can weigh anywhere from 4 – 15 lbs.
- Because they prey on ants and termites, they have short, powerful legs for burrowing and splitting apart logs with claws to match. They have backward-turned hind feet that help with clearing dirt behind them as they burrow.
- The long claws and flexible ankles on the hind legs also help with grooming and combing through their quills and fur. Their fur can range in color from honey to reddish brown and also black.
- The short-beaked echidna has cream or yellow-colored quills that grow up to two inches in length. There are no quills on the face, underside, and legs because when threatened they curl into a ball so these parts are all protected by the spiky armor.
- Unlike a porcupine’s quills, echidna spines do not detach when they come in contact with a predator or a curious creature.
If porcupines belong to the Order Rodentia, the Echidna to the Order Monotremata, the hedgehog is part of the Order Eulipotyphla, related to shrews and moles. There are 17 species of hedgehogs, and they are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia.
British colonists brought them to New Zealand in the 1870s however, presently due to their popularity as exotic pets, they have found their way to the Americas too.
The species in the photo is a European Hedgehog, found in regions such as Spain, Italy, Denmark, and the UK. They are omnivores that mostly feast on insects, worms, and a wide variety of agricultural or garden pests, supplemented with fruit and mushrooms.
- They are another small spiny mammal, with a head and body length of 6-10 inches, and a tiny tail just about 1 inch long. Fully mature they can weigh about 2 to 4 lbs.
- Dark brown fur covers the cone-shaped face and snout, and the spines are brown and cream-colored. There are rare blonde European hedgehogs with purely cream-colored fur and spines.
- Their spines are also modified hairs that are about 1 inch in length, used for defense from predators. Like the echidna, they roll into a prickly ball when in danger. The hedgehog spines do not easily release from the skin and are not barbed as well.
The tenrec is an interesting animal unique to Madagascar. There are 31 species under the Order Afrosoricida, each bearing some resemblance to shrews, hedgehogs, and opossums even though not closely related to these groups of animals.
They have a wide range of physical attributes – some are as tiny as 0.2 oz while the biggest can weigh up to 4.4 lbs.
The tenrec in the video is the Tailless Tenrec, also known as the Common Tenrec which is the biggest species. Like most of its family, it is an omnivore that feeds mostly on invertebrates, mice, frogs, and also vegetation, and fruit.
- They look like a giant hedgehog that is less furry and spiky, and with a grey-brown to reddish-brown coloration. Head to the base of tail length ranges from 10 to 15 inches. Despite their name, they do have a tiny tail that is about a half-inch long.
- Juvenile tailless tenrecs have white spines in the middle of their back, which they can rustle together to produce a sound that warns littermates of danger. This is called stridulation. By two months of age, they shed these spines which are replaced by ‘spine-like’ coarse hairs.
- The adult ‘spines’ are much thinner, more like stiff, coarse hairs. The tailless tenrec can raise these ‘spines’ around the head, hiss, and display its large mouth to look more intimidating to predators. However, these spiny hairs cannot protect them the way a porcupine’s thick barbed quills can.
- Like hedgehogs, Tailless Tenrecs have slender legs compared to the rest of their body. This is also a stark difference compared to the North American porcupine’s stocky, muscular legs.
Fact: Quite the opposite of the Tailless Tenrecs which shed their thicker spines for more pliable, ‘spiny hair’ as they mature, North American porcupines are born with soft quills that harden within hours from birth. Most New World Porcupines have a fully developed armor of quills by the age of three months.
Isn’t it amazing how many spiky animals there are all over the world? We talked about quite a number of them outside the porcupine family, so here is a summary of the features of these animals to help you remember and identify them in the future.
|North American Porcupine||Armored Rat||Egyptian Spiny Mouse||Short-Beaked Echidna||European Hedgehog||Tailless Tenrec|
|Geographic Location||USA and Canada||Central and South America||North Africa||Australia and New Guinea||Western Europe||Madagascar|
|Habitat||Tree dwelling sometimes dens in rocks and burrows, especially in winter||Burrows near water||Rocky areas and deserts||Forest and uncleared grassland with an abundance of termites/ants||Wide range: Woodland, grasslands, near human settlements||Forests, grasslands near water|
|Weight||40 lbs||1.7 lbs||3 oz.||15 lbs||4 lbs||4.4 lbs|
|Head to Base of Tail||36 inches||13 inches||5 inches||18 inches||10 inches||15 inches|
|Tail Length||10 inches||10 inches||5 inches||<1 inch||1 inch||0.5 inches|
|Fur||Yellowish Brown, Brown, and Black||Black to reddish brown||Sandy or greyish brown||Honey, reddish brown, black||Dark brown, some blonde||Greyish or reddish brown|
|Quills||Mostly white||White base black tip||Sandy or greyish brown||Cream or yellow color, 2 inches long||Cream and brown color, 1 inch long||Like coarse hairs|
|Distinct Features/General Appearance||Small head, rounded body shape, and a club-like tail||Like a large brown rat with thick spines on the rear half of the body||Like a large house mouse with bristles on the spine||Narrow mouth called a beak like an anteater||Conical-shaped head and snout, very rounded body covered in spines||Like a mix of a possum and a hedgehog. Large head and sparse spiky hair.|
*All measurements are at the top end of the range
Author: Eleanor Tan
Eleanor grew up with rottweilers and pit bulls and loved the James Herriot books about animals as a kid. She thinks animals are endlessly fascinating, and that we can learn a lot from them, all creatures, great and small.