Meet Creation’s Rambling Pincushion
LET me introduce myself. I am one of Creation’s rambling pincushions. Probably you have heard of the thirteenth-century traveler Marco Polo. Well, while journeying through southern Asia, Marco encountered some of us, and this is what he said: “Here are found porcupines, which roll themselves up when the hunters set their dogs at them, and with great fury shoot out the quills or spines with which their skins are furnished, wounding both men and dogs.”
Five centuries later this opinion was still held by many. In 1744, someone by the name of Churchill said of us, ‘If they are vexed they can by contracting themselves cast their quills forth with such strength that they kill man or beast.’
Now, do you really believe that we would do such a thing? Can we shoot our quills? In fact, just how much do you know about us anyway?
First, a Lesson in Anatomy
To start with, let me say that we’re mammals called rodents. In plain language that means that we gnaw at things. We have incisor teeth well suited for that job.
You humans have classified us as Old World porcupines and New World porcupines. My Old World relatives live in southeastern Europe, Africa and southern Asia. Most of them are about three feet long, if you include their tails. Some weigh as much as sixty pounds. They are called crested porcupines because they have a crest of long bristles on their heads, necks and backs.
New World porcupines, like me, are residents of North and South America. I’m a North American (or, Canadian, if you prefer), about three feet long, tail included, and I weigh in at around twenty pounds. Some of my New World relatives weigh as much as forty pounds. We’re also called tree porcupines because we live mostly in trees. Our hind feet are designed with claws just right for tree-climbing.
Maybe I should mention my color. Well, my fur is a brownish black. And what about those fearsome quills? They’re yellowish white. I’ve heard it said that a picture is worth more than ten thousand words. So, my portrait by a renowned artist is reproduced here for your benefit.
A Word About Our Quills
Originally, the name “porcupine” meant “pig with spines.” Of course, we’re not pigs. But we do have spines or quills, as you know. Thousands of those quills are on our tails, backs and the sides of our bodies. Actually, the quills are bristles of hair that have grown together, becoming fused. Some of mine are two or three inches long and very sharp. That’s good—for me. I defend myself with them.
Some of us have barbed quills. That’s right. The spines have little projections that point backward. Once they enter the flesh of an attacker, the quills swell up, making the barbs stick out. It’s just about impossible to get those painful spines out because the barbs hook into the flesh of an assailant. Furthermore, due to the way these barbs are slanted, the quills work in deeper as the victim moves about.
What About ‘Room and Board’?
Where do we live and what do we eat? Well, our likes and dislikes vary. As a North American, I live in trees, though some of my New World relatives are content to reside among rocks or in holes in the ground. My Old World cousins don’t climb trees. Several of them may live in a single underground burrow having perhaps a half dozen entrances.
I don’t like to travel very much. So, I may live around three or four trees for a whole season. I just make myself comfortable in a tree and chew the bark.
That brings up the matter of food. My relative, the Old World crested porcupine, slips out at night (and sometimes during the daylight) to eat such things as bark, roots and fallen fruit. I have to admit that he can ruin crops too, by feasting on such toothsome delights as sweet potatoes.
In springtime, Canadian tree porcupines, like myself, may dine on spikes of tiny flowers found on poplar and other trees. Later, aspen or other leaves will do just fine. Various plants satisfy us, but in winter mainly bark is on our menu.
If I head out on a food-hunting expedition, it’s likely to be nighttime. And I may show up in some unexpected places. Maybe you have a cabin in the woods and you have left some salty butter out where I can reach it. I just love that and will take care of every bit you leave me. Maybe I can tip over the saltshaker too, spilling its delicious contents. Oh! Happy day! I have a terrific craving for salt. Why, I’ve even been known to munch on ax handles because of the traces of salty perspiration on them!
During our nocturnal dining, you may hear some unusual sounds. Some of my relatives have tried to gnaw on glass bottles. And, believe it or not, they’ve even been known to eat sticks of dynamite! I imagine that could bring on quite a case of indigestion.
The Cycle of Life
Somehow, despite a questionable diet at times, we manage to survive. I’m likely to live six to ten years. In captivity, crested porcupines have lived twenty years or so. And we rambling pincushions have been around a long time. In fact, we were mentioned in the oldest book on earth, the Bible. It foretold that porcupines would take possession of desolated Babylon, Edom and Nineveh. Sure enough! One explorer of Babylon’s ruins found “quantities of porcupine quills” there.—Isa. 14:23; 34:11; Zeph. 2:14.
We’re not particularly prolific. As far as New World porcupines are concerned, our females usually have one baby a year, in the springtime. Old World crested porcupines have two or three. And, believe it or not, our little ones are born with quills! Sound awful? Well, those spines are soft at first. In the case of crested porcupines, they harden within ten days.
When Junior comes along in the New World porcupine household, often he is eleven inches long. That’s bigger than a newborn black bear. Imagine a thirty-inch female porcupine having a bristling baby that large! Proportionately for our size, we produce the biggest offspring of all the mammals. Why, if human babies were comparatively as large, at birth they would weigh about eighty pounds!
My Peaceful Ways
Some people think that porcupines are aggressive, warlike or pugnacious, always looking for a fight. That’s not true, though. Just watch me. I amble along so peaceably, usually talking to myself in squeaks and grunts, sniffing as I go. Speaking of sniffing, I have a very sensitive nose. As formidable as our armor is, we have been killed by being struck on this tender part of our anatomy.
When I’m not sauntering along at a leisurely pace, you may find me up in a tree, resting from any exertions. There I am, a picture of placidity. Now, who would ever think of me as a dangerous warrior? Of course, all of a sudden, I may let out a scream. In fact, I may just sit there and wail away for an hour. You humans haven’t figured out why I do this, and I think I’ll just keep quiet and leave this a mystery for now.
Ready for the Fray
On the other hand, if I’m down there on the ground and a wildcat or some other attacker closes in on me, I’m quite prepared to be a match for him. I’ll tuck my head and that delicate nose under a log. Then, by taking a firm position with my feet close together, I’ll make sure my underside is protected. Next, I’ll rattle the quills of my tail. That’s a warning, and it sounds a lot like the danger signal given by a rattlesnake.
By now my quills have been raised and I look twice as big as I really am. It’s time for my tail really to go into gear, furiously swinging back and forth. At that point, look out!
If my assailant is foolish enough to persist, I may take my nose out of hiding and tuck it under me the best I can. Then, as my tail swings with a vengeance, I will back up, right into the fray. I know that you can’t call this a frontal attack, but it certainly is most effective. If the would-be molester has any sense at all, I’ll be given plenty of room until I get up a tree.
If a wildcat is stupid, it may take twenty of my spines to ward him off. However, I have plenty of those quills—some 30,000—and the ones lost in battle will be replaced in a few months. Some animals die because one of our sharp spines works its way in and punctures a vital organ. Once in a while, a quill will stick in an attacker’s jaw, sort of knitting it shut. Unable to eat, the unfortunate eventually starves to death. For that matter, germs on our quills can cause fatal infections.
Even mountain lions and bears have been killed by our quills. But no one has anything to fear if he keeps his distance. Marco Polo’s remarks notwithstanding, we don’t shoot our quills. Of course, if you alarm me and my tail starts swinging, it may strike something and loose spines may be thrown off. But relax, I don’t fire my quills at anyone from a distance.
Sometimes a fisher marten—an animal related to the weasel—manages to flip one of us over and sink his teeth into our unprotected underside. Or that “monster” may burrow under the snow and strike us fatally from underneath. Generally, though, we come off the victors.
Once in a while, we North American porcupines end up on the dinner table. But most folks don’t think that we taste good enough or maybe they feel that it’s far too much trouble trying to get some meat from a barbed ambulating fortress.
Well, that’s my story. Maybe we’ll meet up again someday. If we do, why not admire me from a distance? You may call me a pincushion, but I’m not the normal sort. My “pins” are all pointing the wrong way as far as you’re concerned.