The North American porcupine is the second largest rodent in North America, only slightly smaller than the beaver. The roughly 30,000 quills found on their heads, backs, and tails are made of keratin and normally lie flat. When the porcupine is threatened, the quills are raised, transforming this animal into a formidable pincushion. Contrary to popular belief, porcupines cannot shoot the quills, but they are loosely attached—especially in the tail—and can easily become embedded in the face or nose of a predator who comes too close. Each yellow-white quill is three to four inches long and the dark tips are covered with microscopic backward-pointing barbs that make the quill not only difficult to remove, but cause it to work its way further into the wound with movements. This can result in infections and even death. Since the quills are basically modified hairs, they are easily regenerated when lost.
North American porcupines are excellent climbers with sharp claws and bare soles that increase their gripping power. They spend much of their time in trees and their ever-growing incisors are made for gnawing tree bark. Although they are near-sighted, they have excellent senses of touch, hearing, and smell, which help them forage at night. Generally solitary, individuals seek out mates in the fall. After a gestation of 210 days, females give birth to a single precocial baby, called a porcupette. The newborn’s quills are soft and flexible at birth but quickly harden.
North American porcupines live in deciduous and coniferous forests of Alaska, Canada, the northeastern US, and the western US to the border of Mexico.
These rodents are herbivorous, eating buds, blossoms, shoots, leaves, and berries in summer and conifer needles and bark in the winter.
An adult North American porcupine’s body length is two to three feet and its weight can range from 12 to 35 pounds. Their lifespan in the wild is up to 18 years and up to 21 years in human care.