It’s time we gave the Cape porcupine a little more respect, and not just because they are the second biggest rodents in the world, but because they are true ecosystem architects and play a vital role in keeping nature functional.
The Cape porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) – that spiked critter many of us have seen somewhere on a trail or rummaging in a garden at night – is the second largest rodent in Africa, and the second largest of the world’s porcupine species.
Weighing in at between 10 and 30 kilograms with a suit of armour of needle-sharp spears, and with an attitude of an angry bear, our porcupines are not to be messed with, and yet while they deserve our awe and compassion they remain heavily persecuted across their natural ranges.
Just last week we were alerted to the horrific story of a porcupine beaten to death by kids in the Zandvlei Nature Reserve (the fifth such case reported).
The Cape of Good Hope SPCA Wildlife Department routinely gets called out to collect injured porcupines from roadsides after being run over by speeding cars or purposely poisoned by homeowners who consider them a “menace” and a “nuisance” for their habit of digging up plant bulbs and gnawing on tree bark in search of a nutritious snack.
In fact, it is this very act of digging up and aerating the soil and debarking certain trees that means porcupines play a very important role in the design and healthy maintenance of natural (and man-made) ecosystems.
Besides accidental interactions with our vehicles on dark roads at night, porcupines are also increasingly being targeted; trapped and hunted, for their meat and for use in traditional medicine.
While Cape porcupines are not endangered and are listed as being a species of “least concern” by the IUCN, their numbers are in decline in the Cape due to unchecked poaching and habitat loss.
So next time you see one of these spiked wonders of Nature, give them some space and a little bit of respect for the work they do and the role they play in our ecosystem.
Here are some interesting things you might not know about our Cape porcupine friends:
– Porcupines have existed on earth for 40, 000 years.
– The name “porcupine” means “thorny pig” in French (but no, porcupines are not actual pigs – they are rodents.)
– Female porcupines are called sows, males are called boars, babies are called pups and a family of porcupines is called a “prickle”.
– Cape porcupines are found across the African continent, from Cape Town to the Congo!
– Porcupines mate for life. Once “married”, they keep the same partner and will have babies (usually only one but up to three at a time) each year.
– Porcupines are quite long-lived (for a rodent!), living for as long as ten years in the wild (and double that in captivity).
– Porcupines don’t “shoot” their quills in self-defence, rather they “charge” at a threat and embed their sharpened quills into the soft flesh of the would-be predator. It doesn’t hurt them to lose their quills as the quills are not deeply rooted in the skin. Porcupines will grow new quills to replace any that they may lose.
– Porcupine quills are not venomous and they don’t contain poison.
– Porcupines have rows of thick, semi-transparent, hollow spines on their tails that are used as rattles to warn off predators.
– Porcupines are good swimmers; their quills are hollow providing quite good flotation in deep water.
– Porcupines are known to be fast learners with excellent memories,
– Porcupines cannot see very well but they have an excellent sense of smell and good hearing.
– Porcupines will emit a strong-smelling odour (much like old cheese) to warn predators that they are not to be messed with.