Did you know that there are 58 species of porcupines! These rodents are adorable. But beware. The name “porcupine” comes from Latin and means “quill pig.” So as cute as they are, it is better to give them some distance. Those quills can cause some damage. But are you safe even at a distance?
Do porcupines shoot their quills like an arrow? No, porcupines cannot shoot their quills. And they employ numerous defense behaviors before using their quills. Predators will need to be within tail-swinging distance for the quills to become embedded in their flesh.
So how did this myth arise? How do their quills actually work?
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Quill Shooting Myth Origins
There are a few possible answers to this question:
- Shedding Quills: A porcupine’s quills are made out of keratin (the same material that makes human hair and fingernails). Just like hair, a porcupine sheds older quills. While it doesn’t shoot these loose quills like arrows, with a bit of a wiggle, these quills can shake off into the nearby vacinity.
- Cartoons: Being so cute, porcupines make great animated cartoon characters. But unfortunately, cartoons aren’t always accurate. Some of them depict porupines shooting thier quills.
- Other Animals: Have you even encountered an angry tarantula? They can eject hair-like bristles from thier abdomens, directing them at their attackers. Ouch! But porcupines do not have that ability.
4 Porcupine Defense Behaviors
A porcupine is a solitary creature that would rather be left alone. But it will protect itself if the need arises.
There are four escalating stages of porcupine defensive behavior:
- Quill Erection
- Teeth Clattering
- Emitting of Odor
How do Porcupines Attack?
If a porcupine reaches attack mode, it may run backward or sideways into a predator.
It may also swing its tail in defense. These actions will result in the quills becoming detached from the porcupine, and lodging into the predator.
How do quills actually function?
Quills are made out of keratin. They are hard, stiff, and hollow. The end of each quill is very sharp. If you look at a quill under a microscope, you will see that they are covered with small barbs.
These barbs function like small fishing hooks. This design means that quills slide into a predator with ease, but are hard to remove.
Quills detach quite easily from the porcupine. One whack from a porcupine’s tail can inflict dozens of quills.
The only species of porcupine in the United States and Canada is the North American Porcupine. It is one of the largest species and can have upwards of 30,000 quills.
Can porcupine quills hurt humans?
Getting struck by a porcupine is not a fun experience. On the plus side, porcupines are nearsighted, slow-moving, and nocturnal.
So the chance of a human getting attacked by a porcupine is pretty rare. Curious puppies, however, are another story.
So what can you do if you or your puppy gets “quilled?” Seek immediate medical attention! Porcupine quills will continue to work themselves deeper into the flesh until they are removed.
Broken quills may even reach vital organs (depending on location). Then, there is also the risk of infection.
Also, because of the barbed design, porcupine quills can be very painful to remove. So again, the best solution is to get professional help.
Or better yet, avoid scaring/irritating the porcupine to begin with.
4 More Porcupine Quill Facts
- Baby porcupines are called porcupettes. At birth their quills are soft, but they harden within a few days.
- Intestingly, the somewhat clumsy porcupine tends to stick itself with its quills more than it uses in self-defense.
- Each quill is covered with a greasy coating. This material contains antibiotics which help the porcupine recover quickly if it accidentally has a self-inflicted injury.
- How far can porcupines shoot their quills? They can’t shoot their quills even 1 inch. Porcupines don’t shoot quills but stick them into predators by swinging their tails. A predator will have to be directly next to a porcupine to suffer a quill attack.
More reading: How Strong is a Gorilla?
Ready to debunk another myth? Is Hippo Milk Really Pink?
Have you seen a porcupine in the wild? What was your experience? Please let me know in the comments below…