My Column in The Hindu: Piercing Porcupines

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Piercing porcupines

  • Prickly: The pocupine's main defence mechanism is its hair-like quills which are tough to remove. Photo: Nagara Gopal

    Prickly: The pocupine’s main defence mechanism is its hair-like quills which are tough to remove. Photo: Nagara Gopal

  • Illustration: K.G Rangarajan

    Illustration: K.G Rangarajan

Porcupines are sharp animals… literally so! That’s why even tigers and leopards walk away from them.

There are some animals you don’t mess with. Well, you don’t mess with most of them. But there are some that even the princes and kings of the jungle, leopards and tigers, don’t mess with. And one of them is the spiky porcupine.

Mind the quills

Mind you, the sharp coat made of thousands of needle-like quills is not merely a style statement. It is a solid defence mechanism. This rodent renders even the high and mighty of the animal kingdom helpless. When under attack, the porcupine raises its flat-lying quills, moves backwards and stabs the attacker. It then coolly leaves, the quills still sticking to the attacker’s face and other body parts. The deep punctures can result in festering wounds. But porcupines do not attack without provocation.

The Indian Porcupine has short, hollow quills on its tail, which it rattles as a warning when threatened. If an animal proceeds past the warning, the rest is, well, predictable.

Big game hunters and naturalists like Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson have observed how tigers and leopards have a tendency to become man-eaters after porcupine wounds. For instance, the man-eating leopard of Gummalapur had two porcupine quills that had impaled one of his front paws. A porcupine re-grows its lost quills. But the ones it leaves behind, lodged in the skin of other animals, are difficult to remove, thanks to the barbed tips.

Quill pig

The word porcupine, in Latin, means “quill pig.” All of the 29 porcupine species have quills, which may be of various forms. Quills are modified hair, coated with keratin. Their quills are what have captured the imagination of mankind. Their uses include decorations in traditional clothing and accessories like knife sheaves, leather bags and in the Native American ‘Porky Roach Headdresses’. The quills, loaded with backward facing barbs, have also inspired a new hypodermic needle that will go smoothly through your skin and hold it in place. Prickly, eh?

Spikey Facts:

Type: Mammal

Found: Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa

Dwell in: New World (Americas) – tree climbers. Old World (Asia, Europe and Africa) – ground dwellers.

Weight: 5 to 16 kg

Size: Third largest rodent after capybara and beaver

Life Span: 5 to 7 years

Diet: Herbivore

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