How porcupines use their quills

Porcupine at Flamingo Land
Porcupine at Flamingo Land

Porcupines are members of the rodent family, related to rats, mice, guinea pigs, beavers and capybara. They are easily recognised by the coat of spines, or quills, which help to defend them from predators. Porcupines are found in the Americas, Europe, Africa and southern Asia but are not native to Britain. We do, of course, have our own spiny British mammal, the hedgehog, but despite appearances hedgehogs and porcupines are not closely related – hedgehogs aren’t even rodents! Hedgehogs and porcupines have evolved their spines independently of one another; when this happens, it’s known as convergent evolution. There are many different species of porcupine. The ones at Flamingo Land are cape porcupines, which are found in southern Africa.

Porcupines are herbivores, eating leaves, herbs, twigs and green plants such as clover. In winter when there is very little green food available, they will also eat bark. North American porcupines climb trees in order to find food but the African ones (including the kind we have at Flamingo Land) prefer not to climb and just forage on the ground. Porcupines are nocturnal, which is why you will always see ours indoors during the day. At night they have access to the same outdoor enclosure as the Children’s Planet meerkats. The two species are found in the same parts of Africa, so are happy to share space.

A porcupine’s spines are modified hairs. They do fall out on a regular basis (not all at once!) and are then replaced by new ones. The spines on the tail are hollow at the tip, so that if the animal shakes its tail, they rattle. Quills can be either weaponry quills, which are solid but can be of varying lengths, or display quills, which are long and very flexible.

We have two porcupines at Flamingo Land, a male and a female known as Grumpy and Mrs Prickles. Grumpy got his name from his habit of stamping his feet whenever anyone enters his enclosure, something that porcupines do when they’re angry. He is very good-natured with Mrs Prickles and will often collect the best bits of vegetables from their feed and carry them over to her! Her favourite is potatoes, whereas his is parsnips, and he will often fetch potato for her before finding any food for himself.