The North American Porcupine Species (Questions Answered)

North American porcupines live in coniferous and mixed-forest ecosystems, grasslands, desert shrub ecosystems, and tundra. They survive in different environments because of their adaptability and their defensive mechanisms. 

One of their most famous defense mechanisms is their quills that cover almost all of their plumb body. Let’s learn more about these spiky animals and how they evolved to grow quills that protect them from predators!

What Kind Of Animal Is A Porcupine?

Porcupines are slow-moving, quilled, medium-sized animals belonging to the rodent family: the largest group of mammals. I dare even say that they’re one of the more interesting rodents out there!

Like other ordinary warm-blooded mammals, porcupines give birth to live babies that they nurse through infancy with milk through their mammary glands.

Unlike most other mammals, porcupines have sharp quills all over their bodies, that help them protect themselves, quite effectively, from predators. Under the quills, they have a normal undercoat of black or brown fur.

Porcupines have normal rodent incisors and a few cheek teeth. Both their upper and lower incisors are powerful and prominent and grow continuously. 

Porcupines are animals that defy categorization due to their unique combination of traits. This odd mammal serves as another reminder of the plethora of fascinating species that inhabit our planet!

What’s The Porcupine’s Scientific Name?

Porcupine’s scientific name is Erethizon dorsatum which literally translates to “the irritable back” or “the animal with irritating back”. On the other hand, its common name, porcupine, comes from the French word porcespin, which means “the spiny pig”. 

The Latin words “porcus” (pig) and “spina” (thorns) are the origins of this term. Another common name given to them is quill pig. Some people probably thought that the porcupines resembled pigs at some point in the past, if not for their quills.

What Animals Are Porcupines Related To?

The porcupine’s closest relatives are the chinchilla rats, beavers, muskrats, guinea pigs, and other rodents. What they all have in common are their pair of sharp, chisel-like incisor teeth that are specialized for gnawing. 

They use these to gnaw through hard foods and even wood, excavate burrows, but also to defend themselves. Most of them have short limbs, chubby bodies, and long tails, and their diets mostly consist of seeds and plant materials.

Where Did Porcupines Come From Originally?

Porcupines originally come from Africa. Around 300 million years ago, porcupine ancestors crossed the Atlantic to migrate to Brazil, and then 3 million years ago, they traveled to North America during the Great American Interchange.

Now, they occupy various parts of the Northeastern and Western United States. Some porcupines can be found in Alaska and Canada, and a few porcupine species in Asia, Europe, and Africa

Porcupines can inhabit different areas around the globe because they can adapt and survive in different environments such as deserts, grasslands, and woodlands.

How Did Porcupines Evolve?

The evolution of porcupines happened because of the migration of certain species of rodents (Hystricomorphs) from South America to North America. 

The ancestors of the porcupines, called Old World porcupines, have similarities with the porcupines found in North America, such as jaw muscles and teeth. But the difference in their skull and jaws evolve due to their different habitats and how they’ve gradually had to adapt to their environments.

What Were The Porcupine’s Ancestors Like?

The Porcupine’s ancestors look very different from the descendants that we know today. It is said that the African rodent ancestor may have moved to South America and given birth to the New World porcupine.

The porcupine ancestors’ physical appearance is closely similar to the guinea pig and the chinchilla and has fossils dating back to the late Oligocene epoch, roughly 30 million years ago. They don’t have quills and incisors; this is a characteristic that other rodents like porcupines developed and evolved over time.

What Animals Prey On Porcupines?

The animals that prey on porcupines are lynx, bobcats, coyotes, wolves, wolverines, and great-horned owls. Even though porcupines have great defense mechanisms in the form of quills, fishers and mountain lions are two significant predators that aren’t deterred. 

These predators have different strategies to attack porcupines. Some great examples are the fishers that continuously attack from the front while avoiding the dangerous tail quills. The mountain lion, on the other hand, doesn’t try to avoid porcupine quills at all; instead, it attacks at any position and suffers the consequences of the spine in their skin.

Some Animals That Porcupines Aren’t Related To

There are a lot of animals that are mistaken to be related to porcupines because of their spikes. To be clear, quills or spikes are not a basis to determine a specific group of animals and are not used to classify them. Here are some spiked animals that are often mistaken to be related to porcupines:

Echidna

A great example of this is the echidna or spiny anteater. Despite their spiky appearance, they are not related to porcupines. On the contrary, their closest relative is the platypus which is without a trace of spikes in its system. 

Echidna and platypus’ similar characteristic is that they are the only mammals that lay eggs, and without nipples (monotreme). They secrete their milk from the mammary glands that drips out to the tufts of furs. 

Tenrecs

Similarly, tenrecs, a spiked animal endemic to Madagascar and a close relative of otter shrews and golden moles, are confused with being related to porcupines and hedgehogs when they are not.

Hedgehogs

Perhaps the animal most confused to be related to porcupines is the hedgehog because both have sharp, needle-like quills all over their bodies. 

However, this is the only thing that connects the two species. They differ in terms of the size of their quills or spines, their defensive behavior, place where they are located or habitat, their diet, their way of eating, life span, and body size.

What’s The Difference Between A Hedgehog and A Porcupine?

The hedgehog is a totally different animal from a porcupine. They both resemble little balls of spikes; however, they are not related at all. Here are some major points to remember in differentiating porcupines from hedgehogs:

The Difference In Their Quills Or Spines

Compared to hedgehogs, porcupines are bigger and have longer quills. A porcupine’s quills range from 2 to 3 inches long, while hedgehogs are roughly 1 inch long. It’s also important to note, that while a porcupine’s quills detach to work themselves deeper and deeper into the predators that tried to bite them, hedgehog spines don’t detach.

Hedgehogs are more commonly kept as pets than porcupines because they have shorter and less dangerous spikes. The quill count of a hedgehog is only 5,000, whereas a porcupine has over 30,000. Generally, hedgehogs are also just much easier to handle than a big porcupine!

The Difference in Habitat and Diet

North America and Africa are considered the home of porcupines, while hedgehogs can be found throughout Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Hedgehogs were even brought from England to New Zealand.

The porcupine is an herbivore that consumes green plants such as wild cabbage, berries, wildflowers, leaves, twigs, and bark. On the other hand, the natural food sources for hedgehogs primarily consist of insects and other invertebrates. Worms, beetles, slugs, caterpillars, earwigs, and millipedes are typical food items.

The Difference in Defense Mechanisms

Regarding their defensive mechanisms, hedgehogs will curl up into a ball and raise their spines to conceal their delicate bodies completely. On the other hand, the porcupine bends its back and directs its quills at the danger.

The Difference in Size

Hedgehogs are quite a bit smaller than porcupines. Porcupines can reach 20 to 36 inches when they’re fully grown, while hedgehog adults can only range in length from 4 to 12 inches. Similarly, the lifespan of a hedgehog is three to eight years, while a porcupine can reach an astonishing 27 years.

Leave a Comment