11 Prickly Facts about Porcupines

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Porcupines might be considered a prickly bunch, but they're pretty cute once you learn more about them.

1. The origin of "porcupine" can be traced back to Old English and French words.

The word porcupine is a derivative of the Middle French word porc d’espine, meaning “thorny pig.” Middle English variants include "porcupyne" and "porcapyne."

2. Porcupines are the third largest rodents in the world, and the second largest in North America.

Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

That's right behind the second-place beaver, and the first-place capybara. 

3.  Porcupines cannot throw their quills, as was previously thought.


When a porcupine feels threatened, it tenses up and attacks predators with the swat of its tail, embedding quills into their skin. Only on occasion will loose quills fall out before it strikes, creating the illusion that they're being shot out.

4. A porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills on its body.


A typical porcupine has soft hair mixed with quills, which grow from its back, sides, and tail.

5. There are two different types of porcupines.


Old World porcupines

live in Southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. New World porcupines are indigenous to North America and Northern South America.

6. Old World porcupines may not be good climbers, but they are excellent swimmers.

Michelle Bender, Flickr //CC BY NC-ND-2.0

New World porcupines, on the other hand, are capable of clinging to trees with their tails and catching surrounding branches if they fall.

7. They are nocturnal herbivores.

Snowshoe Photography, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

Porcupines are primarily creatures of the night that rest in hollow logs, trees, and crevices during the day, and later come out to enjoy feasts of tree bark, grass, twigs, stems, berries, and the like.

8. Their quills are pre-medicated.

largestartist, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Each quill has a topical antibiotic, so a porcupine attack will not necessarily lead to an infection. This is, however, a defense mechanism to prevent accidental self-quilling.

9. Baby porcupines have soft quills at birth, which harden within a few days.

Chiot's Run, Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

When they grow accustomed to fending for themselves, baby porcupines leave their mothers—approximately 6 months after they're born.

10. Porcupine quills have overlapping barbs at the tips, making them hard to remove.

KaraStenberg, Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

Each quill

boasts between 700 and 800 barbs along its tip.

11. The porcupine mating ritual involves a vicious battle—and urination on the female.

Marie Hale, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A typical mating ritual consists of two males fighting over a single female. The males are careful not to injure themselves during the fight, and the winner territorially urinates on the female so that she knows to move her tail aside for safe, quill-free mating.