Schandelemeier on the outdoors: Porcupines 101

John Schandelmeier
Erik Hill

There are porcupines all over North America and around the world, but in Alaska they are more common than almost anywhere.

They are the second largest rodent in the United States (beavers are the largest) and are readily visible along most of our highways. The word porcupine comes from a Latin derivative meaning thorn swine. They are known to most as road-kill or a muzzle full of quills in the unwary house dog.

A porcupine carries about 30,000 quills. Each quill has tiny backwards-facing barbs that make them very difficult to pull out. Every quill also has a tiny muscle at the base so they can stand erect when necessary. The belly and nose of the animal are the only unprotected parts. All of these super sharp, pokey things are actually modified hair, made of keratin, the same as our hair and fingernails.

Fortunately, the quills have mild antibiotic properties which keep an injury from becoming infected. I once got a broken quill in my biceps while removing quills from a sled dog. It went into the muscle and came out the back of my arm 10 days later. It hurt going in and coming out, but that was it.

I often wonder how porcupines are able to mate successfully. It seems the female can lay her quills flat and tighten the muscles on each quill. Obviously that works well. Males have violent fights over females, complete with shrieking, biting and the exchange of quills. Occasionally males actually die in these bouts.

Mating takes place in late September or October, with the young born after a seven-month gestation period. A single baby is born. It weighs one pound and comes complete with soft quills that harden within a couple of hours.

Their eyes are open and they may nurse for as long as four months, though they are foraging on their own within a few days. They stay with the mother for about six months and are able to breed at the end of their second year.

Young porcupines and adults have a fair number of predators. The fisher is the best known and have been re-introduced into some areas of the Lower 48 to help control porcupine numbers. In Alaska, quill-pigs are targeted by foxes, coyotes and lynx. Some of these animals learn how to flip porcupines on their backs to reach the unprotected belly.

Wolverines are among those able to kill them in much the same manner. Wolverine are very persistent in the pursuit of porcupines. I once discovered where a wolverine had come on a porcupine in a eight-foot spruce on the edge of timberline. He had beaten down a path around the tree. Somehow the porcupine was finally dislodged and a cleaned hide was all that remained.

Horned owls and eagles are also able to take a few young porcupines by striking at the relatively unprotected head. However, man is far and away the most dangerous predator of all. More porcupines are killed along our roadsides by automobiles than anywhere else. The animals are attracted to the road by the initial emergence of green shoots at the edges of the asphalt and by salt residues left from winter sanding operations.

The desire for salt and minerals is also manifested when they begin to eat plywood cabins for the glue. Minerals and the constantly growing teeth of these rodents have them chewing on shed horns and even car tires. During winter months, spruce bark is the preferred feed. Willow is also used in some locales.

Porcupines are extremely near-sighted, but are able to find food with their well-developed sense of smell and touch. The variety of the porcupines' diet increases in summer months. Almost any type of green shoots are eaten, from willow buds in early spring to the very last of the fireweed in August.

Winter darkness presents no real challenge as porcupines are mostly nocturnal. Late evenings are the best times to see them out and about -- and also the best time to keep the dogs inside. In Alaska, winter territories are usually confined to a very small stand of spruce where the animal spends most of its time in trees or in a den under a deadfall or rock crevasse; safe there from most predation.

So, go easy along our highways this fall while out and about during the last camping trips of the season. Look at this slow, lumbering rodent with different eyes -- as an interesting animal with its own lifestyle and place in our eco-system. 

John Schandelmeier