Porcupines are large rodents with coats of sharp spines, or quills, that protect them against predation. The term covers two families of animals: the Old World porcupines of family Hystricidae, and the New World porcupines of family Erethizontidae. Both families belong to the infraorder Hystricognathi within the profoundly diverse order Rodentia and display superficially similar coats of rigid or semi-rigid quills, which are modified hairs composed of keratin. Despite this, the two groups are distinct from one another and are not closely related to each other within the Hystricognathi. The largest species of porcupine is the third-largest living rodent in the world, after the capybara and beaver.

North American porcupine
North American porcupine
Scientific classificationEdit this classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Suborder: Hystricomorpha
Infraorder: Hystricognathi
Groups included
Cladistically included but traditionally excluded taxa

The Old World porcupines (Hystricidae) live in Italy, Asia (western[1] and southern), and most of Africa. They are large, terrestrial, and strictly nocturnal.

The New World porcupines (Erethizontidae) are indigenous to North America and northern South America. They live in wooded areas and can climb trees, where some species spend their entire lives. They are less strictly nocturnal than their Old World counterparts and generally smaller.

Most porcupines are about 60–90 cm (25–36 in) long, with a 20–25 cm (8–10 in) long tail. Weighing 5–16 kg (12–35 lb), they are rounded, large, and slow, and use an aposematic strategy of defence. Porcupines' colouration consists of various shades of brown, grey and white. Porcupines' spiny protection resembles that of the only distantly related erinaceomorph hedgehogs and Australian monotreme echidnas as well as tenrecid tenrecs.


The word "porcupine" comes from Latin porcus pig + spina spine, quill, via Old Italian (Italian "porcospino", thorn-pig)—Middle FrenchMiddle English.[2][3] A regional American name for the animal is "quill-pig".[4]

A baby porcupine is a porcupette. When born, a porcupette's quills are soft hair; they harden within a few days, forming the sharp quills of adults.[5]


Fossils belonging to the genus Hystrix date back to the late Miocene of the continent of Africa.[6]



A porcupine is any of 58 species of rodents belonging to the families Erethizontidae (genera: Coendou, Erethizon, and Chaetomys) or Hystricidae (genera: Atherurus, Hystrix, and Trichys). Porcupines vary in size considerably: Rothschild's porcupine of South America weighs less than a kilogram (2.2 lb); the crested porcupine found in Italy, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa can grow to well over 27 kg (60 lb). The two families of porcupines are quite different, and although both belong to the Hystricognathi branch of the vast order Rodentia, they are not closely related.

Old World compared with New World speciesEdit

The 11 Old World porcupines tend to be fairly large and have spines grouped in clusters.

The two subfamilies of New World porcupines are mostly smaller (although the North American porcupine reaches about 85 cm or 33 in in length and 18 kg or 40 lb), have their quills attached singly rather than grouped in clusters, and are excellent climbers, spending much of their time in trees. The New World porcupines evolved their spines independently (through convergent evolution) and are more closely related to several other families of rodents than they are to the Old World porcupines.[7]


Porcupines have a relatively high longevity and hold the record for being the longest-living rodent, with one individual named Cooper living over 32 years.[8]


The North American porcupine is a herbivore and often climbs trees for food; it eats leaves, herbs, twigs, and green plants such as clover. In the winter, it may eat bark.[9]

The African porcupine is not a climber; instead, it forages on the ground.[9] It is mostly nocturnal[10] but will sometimes forage for food in the day, eating bark, roots, fruits, berries, and farm crops. Porcupines have become a pest in Kenya and are eaten as a delicacy.[11]


Defensive behaviour displays in a porcupine depend on sight, scent, and sound. Often, these displays are shown when a porcupine becomes agitated or annoyed. There are four main displays seen in a porcupine: (in order from least to most aggressive) quill erection, teeth clattering, odor emission, and attack.[12] A porcupine's colouring aids in part of its defence as most of the predators are nocturnal and colour blind. A porcupine's markings are black and white. The dark body and coarse hair of the porcupine are a dark brown/black and when quills are raised, present a white strip down its back mimicking the look of a skunk. This, along with the raising of the sharp quills, deters predators. Along with the raising of the quills, porcupines clatter their teeth to warn predators not to approach. The incisors vibrate against each other, the strike zone shifts back, and the cheek teeth clatter. This behaviour is often paired with body shivering, which is used to further display the dangerous quills.[12] The rattling of quills is aided by the hollow quills at the back end of the porcupine.[13] The use of odor is when the sight and sound have failed. An unpleasant scent is produced from the skin above the tail in times of stress and is often seen with quill erection.[14] If these processes fail, the porcupine will attack by running sideways or backwards into predators. A porcupine's tail can also be swung in the direction of the predator; if contact is made, the quills could be impaled into the predator causing injury or death.[15]


Quills grow in varying lengths and colours, depending on the animal's age and species.

Porcupines' quills, or spines, take on various forms, depending on the species, but all are modified hairs coated with thick plates of keratin,[16] and embedded in the skin musculature. Old World porcupines have quills embedded in clusters, whereas in New World porcupines, single quills are interspersed with bristles, underfur, and hair.

Quills are released by contact or may drop out when the porcupine shakes its body. New quills grow to replace lost ones.[16][17] Despite what is commonly believed, porcupines do not have the ability to launch their quills at range.[18][19]

There are some possible antibiotic properties within the quills, specifically associated with the free fatty acids coating the quills.[13] The antibiotic properties are believed to aid a porcupine that has suffered from self-injury.

Uses by humansEdit

Porcupine guard hair headdress made by native peoples from Sonora displayed at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Porcupines are seldom eaten in Western culture but are eaten often in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, where the prominent use of them as a food source has contributed to declines in porcupine populations.[20][21][22]

Naturalist William J. Long reported the taste of the North American porcupine as "vile" and "malodorous" and delightful only to a lover of strong cheese. With regards to a Maine state law that restricted the killing of porcupines to keep them available as emergency game for people lost in the woods, he noted: "It is undoubtedly a good law; but I cannot now imagine any one being grateful for it, unless the stern alternative were death or porcupine."[23]

More commonly, their quills and guard hairs are used for traditional decorative clothing; for example, their guard hairs are used in the creation of the Native American "porky roach" headdress. The main quills may be dyed, then applied in combination with thread to embellish leather accessories, such as knife sheaths and leather bags. Lakota women would harvest the quills for quillwork by throwing a blanket over a porcupine and retrieving the quills left stuck in the blanket.[24]

The presence of barbs, acting like anchors, causes increased pain when removing a quill that has pierced the skin.[16] The shape of the barbs makes the quills effective for penetrating the skin and for remaining in place.[25] The quills have inspired research for such applications as the design of hypodermic needles and surgical staples.[25][26] In contrast to the current design for surgical staples, the porcupine quill and barb design would allow easy and painless insertion, as the staple would stay in the skin using the anchored barb design rather than being bent under the skin like traditional staples.[26] Porcupines are also sometimes kept as an Exotic pet.

The American Libertarian Porcupine Logo

The porcupine is often used as a symbol of American libertarianism due to its natural embodiment of defensiveness and the non-aggression principle.[27]


A pair of North American porcupines in their habitat in Quebec

Porcupines occupy a small range of habitats in tropical and temperate parts of Asia, Southern Europe, Africa, and North and South America. They live in forests and deserts, rocky outcrops, and hillsides. Some New World porcupines live in trees, but Old World porcupines prefer a rocky environment. Porcupines can be found on rocky areas up to 3,700 m (12,100 ft) high. They are generally nocturnal but are occasionally active during daylight.

Hunting porcupine near the town of Cassem, in a miniature from The Book of Wonders by Italian explorer Marco Polo (first book, manuscript 2810)


North American porcupine eating grass and clover

Porcupines are distributed into two evolutionarily independent groups within the suborder Hystricomorpha of the Rodentia.[28][29][30][31][32][33][34][35]

See alsoEdit

  • Pangolins, another mammal group with protective keratin body coverings
  • Armadillos, another mammal group with protective keratin body coverings


  1. ^ Porcupine. biblehub.com
  2. ^ Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, s.v. "porcupine" . Retrieved March 26, 2015.
  3. ^ Wedgwood, Hensleigh (1855). "On False Etymologies". Transactions of the Philological Society (6): 68.
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "quill Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine" . Retrieved July 20, 2010.
  5. ^ "Reference.com". Archived from the original on 2017-03-10.
  6. ^ Barthelmess, E.L. (2006). "Hystrix africaeaustralis". Mammalian Species (788): 1–7. doi:10.1644/788.1.
  7. ^ "Porcupines". worldanimalfoundation.org. 2021-10-19.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. ^ "Cooper the porcupine, believed to be world's oldest rodent, celebrates 32nd birthday at the Museum of Science - The Boston Globe". BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved 2021-10-12.
  9. ^ a b "Porcupines, Porcupine Pictures, Porcupine Facts". National Geographic. 2010-09-10. Retrieved 2012-02-20.
  10. ^ "North American porcupine – Erethizon dorsatum (Linnaeus, 1758)". Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Archived from the original on June 7, 2014. Retrieved July 26, 2012.
  11. ^ "Porcupines raise thorny questions in Kenya". BBC News. August 19, 2005. Retrieved September 21, 2009.
  12. ^ a b Roze, Uldis (2009). The North American Porcupine Second Edition (Second ed.). Cornell University, United States of America: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-4646-7.
  13. ^ a b Roze, Locke, Uldis, David (March 1990). "Antibiotic Properties of Porcupine Quills". Journal of Chemical Ecology. 16 (3): 725–734. doi:10.1007/bf01016483. PMID 24263588. S2CID 2045335.
  14. ^ Guang, Li (1997). "Warning Odor of the North American Porcupine". Journal of Chemical Ecology. 23 (12): 2737–2754. Bibcode:1997JSP....23.2737L. doi:10.1023/a:1022511026529. S2CID 36405223.
  15. ^ Mori, Emiliano (October 2013). "The defense strategy of the crested porcupine Hystrix cristata". ResearchGate.
  16. ^ a b c David Attenborough (2014). Attenborough's Natural Curiosities 2. Vol. Armoured Animals. UKTV.
  17. ^ "Porcupines | National Geographic". Animals. 2010-09-10. Retrieved 2019-04-16.
  18. ^ Flower, William Henry; Lydekker, Richard (1911). "Porcupine" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 101 second para. The spines are mixed with long soft hairs
  19. ^ Shepard, Thomas Goodwin (1865). The natural history of secession. Derby & Miller. pp. 78–.
  20. ^ "Wild Southeast Asian porcupines under threat due to illegal hunting, researchers find". Sciencedaily.com. 2010-08-25. Retrieved 2012-02-20.
  21. ^ Brooks, Emma G.E.; Roberton, Scott I.; Bell, Diana J. (2010). "The conservation impact of commercial wildlife farming of porcupines in Vietnam". Biological Conservation. 143 (11): 2808. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.07.030.
  22. ^ Ettinger, Powell (2010-08-30). "Wildlife Extra News – Illegal hunting threatens Vietnam's wild porcupines". Wildlifeextra.com. Retrieved 2012-02-20.
  23. ^ Long, William J. (1902). Wood Folk at School. Boston and London: Ginn & Company. p. 116.
  24. ^ "Lakota Quillwork Art and Legend". Retrieved 29 June 2013.
  25. ^ a b Cho, W. K.; Ankrum, J. A.; Guo, D.; Chester, S. A.; Yang, S. Y.; Kashyap, A.; Campbell, G. A.; Wood, R. J.; Rijal, R. K.; et al. (2012). "Microstructured barbs on the North American porcupine quill enable easy tissue penetration and difficult removal". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (52): 21289–94. Bibcode:2012PNAS..10921289C. doi:10.1073/pnas.1216441109. PMC 3535670. PMID 23236138.
  26. ^ a b Porcupines Give You 30,000 Reasons to Back Off | Deep Look, archived from the original on 2021-10-30, retrieved 2020-05-14
  27. ^ "The Libertarian Party Symbol". www.symbols.com. Retrieved 2021-04-02.
  28. ^ Huchon D., Catzeflis F. & Douzery E. J. P. (2000). "Variance of molecular datings, evolution of rodents, and the phylogenetic affinities between Ctenodactylidae and Hystricognathi". Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B. 267 (1441): 393–402. doi:10.1098/rspb.2000.1014. PMC 1690539. PMID 10722222.
  29. ^ Murphy W. J.; Eizirik E.; Johnson W. E.; Zhang Y. P.; Ryder O. A.; O'Brien S. (2001). "Molecular phylogenetics and the origins of placental mammals". Nature. 409 (6820): 614–618. Bibcode:2001Natur.409..614M. doi:10.1038/35054550. PMID 11214319. S2CID 4373847.
  30. ^ Huchon D.; Chevret P.; Jordan U.; Kilpatrick C. W.; Ranwez V.; Jenkins P. D.; Brosius J.; Schmitz J. (2007). "Multiple molecular evidences for a living mammalian fossil". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 104 (18): 7495–7499. Bibcode:2007PNAS..104.7495H. doi:10.1073/pnas.0701289104. PMC 1863447. PMID 17452635.
  31. ^ Blanga-Kanfi S.; Miranda H.; Penn O.; Pupko T.; DeBry R. W.; Huchon D. (2009). "Rodent phylogeny revised: analysis of six nuclear genes from all major rodent clades". BMC Evol. Biol. 9: 71. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-71. PMC 2674048. PMID 19341461.
  32. ^ Churakov G.; Sadasivuni M. K.; Rosenbloom K. R.; Huchon D.; Brosius J.; Schmitz J. (2010). "Rodent evolution: back to the root". Mol. Biol. Evol. 27 (6): 1315–1326. doi:10.1093/molbev/msq019. PMID 20100942.
  33. ^ Meredith R. W.; Janecka J. E.; Gatesy J.; Ryder O. A.; Fisher C. A.; Teeling E. C.; Goodbla A.; Eizirik E.; Simao T. L.; Stadler T.; Rabosky D. L.; Honeycutt R. L.; Flynn J. J.; Ingram C. M.; Steiner C.; Williams T. L.; Robinson T. J.; Burk-Herrick A.; Westerman M.; Ayoub N. A.; Springer M. S.; Murphy W. J. (2011). "Impacts of the Cretaceous terrestrial revolution and KPg extinction on mammal diversification". Science. 334 (6055): 521–524. Bibcode:2011Sci...334..521M. doi:10.1126/science.1211028. PMID 21940861. S2CID 38120449.
  34. ^ Fabre P.-H.; Hautier L.; Dimitrov D.; Douzery E. J. P. (2012). "A glimpse on the pattern of rodent diversification: a phylogenetic approach". BMC Evol. Biol. 12: 88. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-88. PMC 3532383. PMID 22697210.
  35. ^ Upham N. S. & Patterson B. D. (2012). "Diversification and biogeography of the Neotropical caviomorph lineage Octodontoidea (Rodentia: Hystricognathi)". Mol. Phylogenet. Evol. 63 (2): 417–429. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2012.01.020. PMID 22327013.

External linksEdit