8 Peculiar Facts About Porcupines

These prickly rodents are full of surprises.

A North American porcupine in Utah's Zion National Park.
A North American porcupine in Utah's Zion National Park.

Kathleen Reeder Wildlife Photography / Getty Images

Porcupines are typecast as prickly, and understandably so. Those long, sharp quills are hard to miss, and they tend to be the main takeaway from any interaction with a porcupine — both figuratively and literally.

Yet behind this attention-grabbing defense mechanism, porcupines are also interesting, well-rounded creatures worthy of admiration and respect. Here are a few things you may not know about porcupines, from those notorious quills to the misunderstood animals underneath.

1. The Word Porcupine Means 'Thorn Pig'

The English word for porcupines can be traced back about 600 years, when the animal was known as "porke despyne." That came from the Old French porc espin, which literally translates to "spine hog," from the Latin roots porcus (pig) and spina (thorn or spine). There were also several other variations of the word in Middle English and early Modern English; in "Hamlet," for example, Shakespeare wrote it as "porpentine."

2. There Are Two Distinct Families of Porcupines

Indian porcupine walking in forest
The Indian porcupine is one of 11 Old World species.

Photocech / Getty Images

Porcupines are not pigs, of course. They're just big rodents whose stout bodies and blunt, rounded heads look vaguely piglike. They fall into two main families: Old World porcupines (Hystricidae) of Africa and Eurasia and New World porcupines (Erethizontidae) of North and South America.

Old World porcupines are terrestrial and strictly nocturnal, and have longer quills. They include the large crested porcupines, some of which can grow more than 2 feet (61 centimeters) long and weigh up to 60 pounds (27 kilograms). They have a skirt of long, pliable quills that can measure 20 inches (51 cm) long, which can stand up in tense situations, making the porcupines appear two or three times larger.

New World porcupines are less strictly nocturnal. Some are terrestrial, while others live entirely in trees, with long, prehensile tails to help them balance. Their quills are shorter, and aren't grouped in clusters like those of their Old World counterparts. They tend to be smaller, although the North American porcupine can be 3 feet (90 cm) long and weigh 30 pounds (14 kg).

3. They're Good Swimmers

Both the Old World and New World families of porcupines are surprisingly skillful swimmers. In at least some porcupine species, the air-filled quills on the animals' backs can give them a buoyancy boost as they move through water, like a permanent life jacket. While the quills help it stay afloat, the porcupine propels itself forward with a stroke similar to dog paddling.

4. They Have Long Life Spans for Rodents

Malayan porcupine at night in Thailand
Malayan porcupines can live for 27 to 28 years.

kajornyot / Getty Images

Rodents often live fast and die young. They're also highly diverse, though, accounting for about 40% of all mammal species alive today, and some have incredible longevity. Species from chinchillas to marmots to tree squirrels may live for 20 years, and porcupines can stick around even longer.

Both porcupine families include some of the longest-lived rodents known to science. The North American porcupine can live for 23 years, while South America's prehensile-tailed porcupine can go four years longer. At least three species of Old World porcupines have maximum life spans of 27 to 28 years. That's longer than the world's largest rodent — capybaras only live up to 15 years — but it's still rivaled by the tiny and seemingly omnipotent naked mole rat, which can live for nearly 30 years.

5. One Porcupine Can Have 30,000 Quills

Some porcupines have as many as 30,000 quills. These modified hairs are loosely connected, letting them detach easily so the porcupine can escape while its attacker deals with the consequences. Contrary to a longstanding myth, porcupines cannot eject their quills like arrows.

Still, porcupine quills are not just passive weapons. Aside from wearing them like armor, a porcupine may charge at a predator if it feels threatened, even swinging its quill-covered tail. The end of each quill has a barb like a fish hook, making it difficult to remove.

Quills may also help prevent conflict in the first place. The blunt, hollow quills on the tail of some species rattle when shaken, offering a warning to potential predators who may not fully appreciate the risk.

6. They Still Have to Worry About Predators

Two lions look at a porcupine
Lions sometimes prey on Old World porcupines.

Paul Souders / Getty Images

Quills are a potent defense, but they can't protect porcupines from every predator. A variety of animals are known to prey on New World porcupines, including bobcats, great-horned owls, martens, and wolverines. Fishers (relatives of the weasel) are especially adept at neutralizing their quills, having figured out how to flip North American porcupines onto their backs, exposing their defenseless underbellies. Old World porcupines are sometimes preyed upon by lions, and are also targeted by human hunters for bushmeat in some places.

7. Their Quills Have Antibiotic Properties

Porcupine quills are coated with potent natural antibiotics, which have been shown to strongly inhibit the growth of several gram-positive bacterial strains. That might seem odd, as if porcupines are protecting their predators from infection, but their quills are most likely medicated for their own safety. Porcupines can accidentally stab themselves in a variety of situations — such as falling out of trees, which research suggests may happen fairly often — and having antibiotic-coated quills could limit the damage.

8. Their Babies Are Called 'Porcupettes'

A porcupette, or baby porcupine, climbs a tree in California.
A porcupette climbs a tree in California.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Baby porcupines are known as porcupettes. They are born with soft, bendable quills that begin to harden within a few days after they are born. Porcupine mothers typically have only one baby at a time, but their offspring tend to grow up quickly. In some species, a porcupette may be ready to live independently just a few months after being born.

View Article Sources
  1. Gorbunova, Vera et al. "Rodents For Comparative Aging Studies: From Mice To Beavers". AGE, vol 30, no. 2-3, 2008, pp. 111-119. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s11357-008-9053-4

  2. Roze, Uldis et al. "Antibiotic Properties Of Porcupine Quills". Journal Of Chemical Ecology, vol 16, no. 3, 1990, pp. 725-734. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/bf01016483