Porcupines lead solitary lives, staking claims to patches of prime hardwood forest and defending their feeding grounds zealously. Normally, a porcupine ranges out of its territory only to mate or to find salt.
Porcupine habitat stretches across the continent, excluding only the Southeast and the far North, so almost any wilderness trek will take you through quillpig country. The trick is to spot one. Porcupines stay well-hidden in the backwoods, concealed in thick forest canopy. You’re most likely to find one near a clearing or recent logging site, where succulent young trees abound. The surest sign that porcupines are about is a smattering of twisted, barkless “witch” trees. (Porcupines gradually denude or “girdle” favorite trees, which atrophy and die as they lose their protective outer layers.) Look up and you might see a dark, out-of-place lump.
The best porcupine viewing comes in winter, when a layer of snow helps you identify an active tree by the twigs, bits of bark, and plentiful droppings scattered around its base, and by the well-worn, urine-stained trail that leads through the snow to a nearby den. In fresh snow, this low-slung animal leaves deep furrows instead of its customary pigeon-toed tracks. Still, your best bet for seeing one of these recluses may come on the drive home rather than along the trail, since porcupines frequent rural roads in their quest for road salt.
Like other herbivores with sodium-poor diets, porcupines require massive salt supplements to maintain the intercellular chemical balance necessary for proper nerve and muscle function. They’ll swim backcountry lakes in pursuit of the yellow water lily, a sodium-rich plant fancied by moose. They’ll also chew on sweat-impregnated hiking boots, wooden axe handles, and canoe paddles, as well as outhouses and sheds made from plywood that contains salty glues and fungicides. The salt-encrusted underbodies of cars also invite a good licking.
The porcupine’s distinguishing feature, of course, is its bristling phalanx of 30,000 quills. Members of the anteater, hedgehog, mouse, and rat families also sport spiny overcoats, but the porcupine is the world-renowned bane of curious dogs. Its long guard hairs fuse together to form light, stiff, and virtually hollow 4-inch shafts with points sharp enough to pierce the hides of hungry bears, wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions. The quills on a baby porcupine grow rigid within hours of birth.
Since the quills on a porcupine’s head are shorter and less numerous than those on its flanks, back, and tail, the animal covers its face when under attack, or shoves its snout under a rocky outcrop, presenting only a bristling posterior to its attacker. Any quills lost during fights or molting grow back within days. Its nimble nemesis the fisher succeeds by confusing and exhausting the porcupine with slashing bites to its vulnerable face, then flips it to feast on a meaty belly.
Contrary to popular myth, porcupines cannot fire quills at their attackers. Instead, they set the loosely-
anchored spears with quick tail thrusts to their persecutors’ muzzles. Quills are controlled by specialized muscles just below the skin that let the animal raise its quills quickly in defense and rattle them in warning.
There are countless tales of dogs being wounded by porcupines, and the literature confirms at least one human fatality. One might expect that the danger of impalement is infection, but quills are coated with a fatty acid compound that acts as an antibiotic. Naturalists theorize that the porcupine, a clumsy animal known to skewer itself in falls from leafy perches, developed the coating to ward against self-inflicted infections.
The risk instead lies in the migration of quills through the body. Each quill is barbed at its tip with minuscule shingles that expand and anchor it like a hook in a fish’s jaw. Once embedded, the quill moves deeper into the victim’s body as normal muscle movements tug at the barbs. A broken-off or undetected quill can migrate from its entry point and emerge from another part of the afflicted limb without causing significant pain or damage.
A Jasper Park ranger we met days after our encounter told us of a quill tip that had traveled from his calf up and across his leg to exit from his thigh. Had the quill journeyed far enough to puncture a vital organ, he may not have survived.
You needn’t worry about an unfortunate run-in with a quillpig, though. A porcupine is a slow and rather passive creature that gives ample warning of its presence when frightened. You’ll likely smell a strong, fetid odor and hear tooth-clacking and quill-rattling before you even see it. Since it can embed hundreds of quills with one or two swipes of its tail, give a quillpig wide berth and leash your dog!
If you or your pet should suffer a quilling, grasp each quill with pliers as close to the entry point as possible, and pull straight out gently to avoid breaking off the barbed tip. Your dog may resist, and quills in his mouth may not be visible or accessible, so get to a veterinarian as soon as possible. If you are the victim, see your doctor for a quick inspection.
While some people still consider the porcupine a pest, there’s a new appreciation for the role it plays in forest diversity. The animal’s appetite for the most common tree types creates an opening for rarer species, and its habit of dining on tender upper branches prunes the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and promote the growth of understory plants that provide habitat for birds and mammals.
But no story about porcupines would be complete without an inquiry into their mating rituals. How, exactly, do they do it with all those quills? Carefully, of course, but also with a panache befitting their bizarre appearance. It begins with noisy, often violent showdowns between the males, and proceeds with a whining, tail-thumping routine performed by the dominant male for the desired female. If she consents, he treats her to a series of urine baths. Stricken with mad passion, the female then lowers her quills and places her tail strategically to one side. They mate. Quickly.