Rodents, famous for being numerous, disease-carrying, and nearly impossible to kill are possibly the most misunderstood and fascinating of the mammalian orders. The defining characteristic of rodents are the sharp and ever-growing incisors made famous by rats, mice, and beavers. On the whole, the order accounts for nearly forty percent of all the mammalian species and includes in its ranks; the aforementioned rats, mice, beavers, as well as hamsters, guinea pigs, capybaras, prairie dogs, squirrels, and perhaps most interesting of all, porcupines.
The four crested porcupines making their homes at Safari West make up the entirety of our rodent collection. Unlike the ground squirrels, gophers, and field mice scurrying through our open spaces, the crested porcupines are huge. Among the largest rodents on the planet, crested porcupines can grow to be the size of a dog and weigh anywhere from 25 to 60 pounds. While their size alone is startling, the feature that makes them famous are those scary, spiny quills.
Rather than the soft fur we’re used to seeing on their rodent cousins, the porcupines are covered with a menacing coat of long, thick, viciously sharp quills. These quills are technically hairs as well, except that they are significantly harder, thicker, and sharper than any hair we’re used to seeing. Quills serve a valuable defensive purpose, protecting the porcupine from potential predators. Generally speaking, it’s unwise to attack a creature covered in a coat of needles.
While porcupine quills cannot be fired from their bodies and aren’t poisonous, that doesn’t detract from their efficacy as a defensive weapon. When threatened, the crested porcupine lives up to its name. The black and white banded quills which up until now have been lying down along its back crest up and out, opening like an umbrella to transform the porcupine from a really big guinea-pig-like creature into a spiky mass of intimidation and threat. In many cases, this sudden increase in apparent size and added scariness of appearance serve to discourage a potential predator, but if they don’t, the porcupine has a few other strategies up its sleeve. First, they will shake and stamp, causing their quills to rattle together, a technique you may recognize from the rattlesnake. It’s an unnerving sound and draws attention to the bristling armory sprouting from the big rodent’s back.
As a last ditch move, the porcupine can scurry sideways or backward, angling the much sturdier and scarier quills on its sides and back toward the predator. They are fast and agile creatures and an unwary leopard or lion runs the risk of a paw or face full of deep, penetrating wounds. Stab wounds to the face are no laughing matter, especially in the wild where the risk of infection is high. Porcupine encounters that go this far can be fatal.
In spite of this intense and ferocious defense, crested porcupines are generally peaceful creatures. Their quills are defensive in nature and the big rodents are primarily herbivores. A day in the life of a porcupine is oft times fairly uneventful. They tend to inhabit burrows (some of which they dig themselves, though they will readily take over another animal burrow given the chance). During the day, they are typically at home and asleep, venturing out at night to forage for bulbs, tubers, fruits, and grains. Although they survive mostly on vegetation, it is not uncommon to see porcupines gnawing on the bones of other animals. This behavior has several motivating factors, one of which is that, just as with rats and beavers, the gnawing wears down and sharpens their endlessly growing incisors, keeping one of their primary tools for survival in pristine order. The chewing of bones also has the added benefit of introducing important minerals into their diet. Calcium is a major component in bones and helps keep them rigid and strong. Porcupines, by ingesting calcium-rich skeletal matter can repurpose that calcium to grow rigid quills as well.
The Junior Keeper program sponsored by the Safari West Wildlife Foundation has deep ties to our four crested porcupines. The prickliest members of our collection do a phenomenal job of demolishing their habitat. Between their burrowing activities, the constant gnawing on branches and bones, and the ongoing shedding and regrowing of quills, they generate a lot of mess. Every weekend, our intrepid Junior Keepers show up to go in with the porcupines and help clean their room. The cresting behavior the porcupines do to startle predators, they also do when excited and a common sight here on the property is of four giant spike balls scampering around a small army of rake bearing Junior Keepers. As part of the housekeeping, the Junior Keepers also collect and sanitize the dropped quills which are then brought to the trading post where they can be purchased by inquisitive guests.
While the housekeeping is important for the health and well-being of the porcupines, the experience is also an educational one for our Junior Keepers. As they interact with the animals, they learn to identify behavioral cues and watch for potential concerns. They develop skills which allow them to monitor changes in the habitat environment which may indicate health issues, territorial disputes, potential pregnancies, and so on. They also spend a great deal of time generating enrichment for the porcupines. Enrichment can consist of puzzles, toys, and other activities created to stimulate mental engagement and problem-solving in our animals. It’s not enough to feed and house them appropriately. Physical health has little value if mental and behavioral health isn’t accounted for as well.
Working with the porcupines and other animals grants our Junior Keepers small-scale experience with the kind of work done by our keeper staff at large. It is our hope that with this introduction the passionate youngsters of the Junior Keeper program will be inspired to continue down this path. The experience they gain here at Safari West coupled with an education in biology, ecology, animal husbandry, or a related field will equip the up and coming generation to join us as professionals. Conservation and wildlife science is dynamic and constantly evolving fields of exploration and we need all the bright, young minds we can get.
Come to Safari West and see some of the weirdest, wildest rodents on the planet and some of our inquisitive and hard working Junior Keepers at the same time, and possibly even in the same habitat!