Speaking of Nature: Too slow to survive? All porcupines want is a peaceful life in the country woods

This porcupine, taking refuge in an eastern hemlock tree, appears to be smiling for the camera. Note the orange color of the porcupine's self-sharpening teeth.

This porcupine, taking refuge in an eastern hemlock tree, appears to be smiling for the camera. Note the orange color of the porcupine's self-sharpening teeth. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

By BILL DANIELSON

For the Gazette

Published: 06-11-2024 2:27 PM

I was on my way to work the other day and, at least initially, I was enjoying the morning drive. The sun rises just after 5:00 a.m. these days and the approach of my last day of school added a little buoyancy to the otherwise monotonous commute. I have traveled the same route for 21 years and at this point I know every pothole by name. I imagine that many of you have just uttered a “harrumph” and you are now thinking of the potholes that you know.

Things were going along nicely until I reached a certain point. Then I was reminded of the toll that humans take on the world. There was a particular stretch of roadway where I came upon one crumpled body after another. A pair of dead raccoons, several gray squirrels, a few little bodies so pulverized that I couldn’t identify the animal and then one other species that made me (always makes me) particularly sad: the porcupine (Erethizondorsatum).

Now before you go crazy, just hear me out. I understand that porcupines are rodents and that they can be destructive to human artifacts. I have heard tales of porcupines chewing on the handles of shovels because they are looking for salt. I have heard stories of porcupines chewing on plywood, perhaps for the resins that they find delicious. In fact, I have heard all sorts of stories, legends and sagas featuring porcupines, but in the past 27 years of working as a nature photographer I have only managed to take one photo of a live porcupine. Dead porcupines are quite common, but the living article is far more rare.

At present, living a life that has been unmolested by porcupines, I have a soft spot in my heart for these creatures. They are vegetarians that spend most of their time living up in trees where they munch on the bark of different tree species. They will also visit the ground in search of berries (in the summer) and nuts (in the fall). I have also heard that they are partial to apples, but this is not something that I have any personal experience with. I hope that any orchard owners feel free to write in and tell me their tales of the devastation wrought upon fruit trees by these insipid plant predators.

For now, I only see an animal that just wants to go about its life in peace and quiet. The porcupine is famous for having an impressive defense mechanism that consists of highly modified hairs that we call “quills.” Long, hollow and covered with barbs that behave like little fish hooks, these quills can cause extremely painful wounds to anyone foolish enough to attempt to grab a porcupine. I had dogs when I was a boy and though I never saw a live porcupine then either, my dogs were occasionally able to find them. Their reward was always a mouth full of quills.

Because this defense mechanism is so effective, porcupines have been able to survive as slow, waddling animals with rather poor eyesight. There is no need to be fleet of foot, or sharp of eye, if no one in their right mind is willing to tangle with you. I can only imagine that young predators would be willing to give it a try once. On the other hand, domestic dogs don’t seem to be that smart and they will go after porcupines repeatedly. The only predator that seems to specialize in porcupines as prey items is the fisher (Pekania pennanti).

As an aside, please note that I did not use the name “fisher cat.” This is a fairly common name in certain parts, but it is not the correct name of the species. A fisher is a member of the weasel family and is not closely related to cats. Large and powerful, the fisher will focus on attacking and biting at the porcupine’s face until it finally kills the unfortunate animal. For a little perspective, fishers are also capable of killing lynx and bobcats, but that is a story for another day.

Porcupines are rodents, which means that they have a set of incisors that never stop growing. Their diet of trees makes them very similar to the American Beaver (Castor canadensis) and as any logger will tell you, the cutting tools used in harvesting trees need to be sharpened regularly. In the case of the porcupine, it is the anatomy of the teeth that allows them to be self-sharpening. The front of the teeth (facing forward in the mouth) is made of a thick layer of enamel. The back of the teeth (facing the throat) is made of a softer material called “dentin.” With every bite, the softer dentin is eroded faster than the enamel and the teeth can become astoundingly sharp.

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At this point in the history of the world the porcupine has one “predator” that is beyond its ability to defend against. The problem is that this predator is a voracious, mindless killer that will wipe out anything in its path. Yep, you guessed it, the automobile. I can’t imagine that many porcupines were killed by horse-drawn wagons in the 1850s, nor can I imagine that many were killed by the first cars produced in the early 1900s, but today’s car is altogether different. Traveling at speeds over 50 miles per hour, the modern car is deadly to porcupines. The situation is not helped by the fact that porcupines are slow, nocturnal creatures that are attracted to roads where they look for the salt that we so liberally spread during the winter months.

Okay, I am ready for it. Some of my readers are, at this very moment, apoplectic and trembling with rage at the mere thought that anyone could possibly have a soft spot for the pure horror that is a live porcupine. I get it and I am willing to let you vent your frustrations upon me. Just remember that we have created this problem for ourselves. All a porcupine wants is to live its life, get something to eat and enjoy a peaceful life in the country woods.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 27 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.