Retired biology professor explains the ponderous porcupine

This prickly friend was spotted feeding on Bay Estates Road.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The photograph and comments below are provided by Joe Shorthouse, a retired biology professor from Laurentian University in Sudbury who, along with his wife Marilyn, enjoys driving the side roads of Manitoulin Island studying and photographing natural history.

by Joe Shorthouse

MANITOULIN—While driving around Manitoulin Island on April 23, we noticed a porcupine feeding on fresh shoots of grass and clover in a ditch along the Bay Estates Road south of Sheguiandah. When we stopped the car and I grabbed my camera, the porcupine waddled over to some nearby trees and climbed up to about three metres above the ground.

Porcupines are the second largest rodents on Manitoulin Island. Only beavers are larger and indeed, porcupines look like prickly beavers. They eat leaves, twigs and green plants like grasses and clover and in the winter they climb trees to eat bark.

Porcupines have soft hairs, but on their backs, sides and tail the hair is mixed with sharp quills. Quills are an amazing defensive mechanism. When quills get lodged in the skin of a threatening predator, body heat makes the barbs swell, making it even harder and more painful to pull them out. Porcupines cannot shoot the quills at predators, but the quills detach easily when touched. A single adult may have 30,000 quills.

Porcupines are peaceful animals and always try to run away if they feel endangered. They make loud chattering noises as a warning for predators to leave. If they can’t get away their muscles tighten, forcing their quills to detach. They tuck their head in, lean forward and thump their back feet while swinging the tail as a warning. However, the porcupine shown here was so confident that I was harmless, it fell asleep after I had spent about three minutes trying to get into position to take this picture.