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Porcupine - The ultimate hairdo!

Avatar of inke inke - 11. November 2016 - Discover Namibia

Cape porcupines are the largest rodents in southern Africa and also the world's largest porcupines. (Photo: Johann Louw)

Amongst the animals that have developed ingenious adaptations for survival and defence, the porcupine – or ‘ystervark’, as it’s known in Afrikaans, ‘shinjengu’ in Otjiherero or ‘!noab’ in Damara Nama - stands out for its spiny quills, which make it challenging prey, even for its known enemies, lion and leopard.

Porcupines are the third largest of the rodents, after the capybara and the beaver. There are two families of porcupines worldwide, found in the Americas, southern Asia and Africa. Although they both belong to the Hystricognathi branch of Rodentia, they are quite different. The smaller North American porcupine, for example, spends most of its time climbing trees!

The old world family of porcupines, Hystrix africaeaustralis, is widespread throughout southern Africa, with a distribution ranging from Kenya and Uganda down the continent, living in a variety of habitats with the exception of forests and swamps. Extremely versatile, it has even been reported in the coastal sections of the Namib Desert. It sports long, pliable spines and shorter sharp, stiff quills on the upper parts of its body from its shoulders to its tail. A crest of long, coarse black-and-white hair extends from the top of the head to the shoulders and short, coarse, flattened black hair covers the rest of its body. The quills, which are modified hairs coated with thick plates of keratin, are enough of a deterrent to scare aware all but the hungriest or most determined of enemies that will often still bear the scars or an embedded quill long after a confrontation – or a meal. 

Contrary to popular belief the quills cannot be shot into the attacker, rather the porcupine backs into the aggressor if threatened. It will also erect its crest, spines and quills, growl, stamp its feet and rattle its quills, creating a ferocious display and impression.

Porcupines live in holes, often abandoned springhare or aardvark burrows, which they modify, or in caves and rock crevices. Sheltering in the day, this nocturnal species will emerge at night to forage on fruit, bulbs, bark, roots and seeds. They are also known to chew bones for their calcium and phosphorous requirements. Although seen as pests in fields and gardens, and notorious for their destructive feeding habits and their tendency to ring-bark trees, in the wild they may serve a role in the maintenance of savannah ecosystems preventing dense forested areas. They are also said to have an appetite for alien syringas, rather than African stinkwoods and acacias. 

This short stocky rodent with small ears and eyes, weighing 10-24kg, is monogamous. The social unit usually comprises the pair and their offspring, although adults will usually forage alone. Pairs will produce only one litter per year, of one to three young, which are born after a gestation period of 94 days. 

Porcupines are seldom seen, except by night-revellers, insomniacs or those taking night-time game-drives, although detached quills, diggings and fibrous droppings are evidence of their nightly gallivanting. (At times, it is also possible to spot them in the late afternoon or early morning.) They can cover up to 16km in a night’s foraging and a group can have a home range of up to 400 hectares, of which only a section of it will be defended as a territory. 

The unrelated, and smaller, hedgehog with only 2cm long prickles is no match for the 60cm spines and 25cm quills of the porcupine. With hair and spines erect, and rattling the hollow quills at the end of its tail, the porcupine definitely is a contender for the ultimate – and most fearsome - hairdo in Africa.

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