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So many spiny critters out there — who knew?


Sometimes trying to find common understanding with a foreign houseguest can lead to surprises.

We somehow got on the subject of quilled animals, where the Hebrew word for porcupine is dorban. But a second term exists that translates as “hedgehog.”

I had assumed that the two words were interchangeable, like “cougar” and “puma.” It turns out that I was in error, and we are talking about two very distinct animals despite both being quilled.

Dorban is porcupine, and kipode is hedgehog — and they are not related.

In all fairness, the animal I am acquainted with must be the porcupine as they are New World animals, occurring in both North and South America. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are not.

Porcupines are members of the order Rodentia (rodents), family erethizontidae, and have been around since the late Oligocene era, about 26 million years ago. The etymology is obvious, coming from the Latin porcus for “pig” and spina for “thorn.”

They live in the woods, can climb trees, and give birth to a single pup, called a porcupette, after a 16- to 30-week gestation, depending on species.

Porcupette quills are soft. In addition, they have fuzzy red fur and can climb trees within a few days of birth.

Porcupines primarily are herbivores, eating bark, conifer needles and leaves, although some species also will eat insects and small reptiles. Because they eat the cambium (growing) layer of the tree bark during winter, they can easily destroy trees if they girdle them (eat around the entire perimeter).

But clearly, the most memorable quality of a porcupine is its defensive quills, of which it has about 30,000. But even there, things are not what they seem.

When a porcupine bristles and spreads out its defenses, it is not actually the quills that you are seeing, but rather a long, thin, hair-like structure called a guard hair.

Hidden beneath the guard hairs are the 4-inch quills, although quill length does differ depending on their location on the body. Quills are made of keratin (a structural protein found in human hair and nails), and are filled with a foam-like material, are loosely embedded in the skin musculature, and are released on contact.

Since they have a microscopic barb on the end, removal can be difficult and painful, and impossible for many of the prey animals.

Never ones to waste good raw material, Native Americans collected quills from porcupines, cleaned and dyed them, removed the tips, and used them to create decorative embroidery on clothing, moccasins and utensils. Later, trade beads largely replaced porcupine quills for decorative work.

Quills could be collected from living animals by throwing a blanket over it and later removing the embedded quills. The same technique can be used today, substituting a Styrofoam board. Native Americans also collected the guard hairs, using them to create roaches — a dramatic, stiff hair decoration.

Hedgehogs are a different animal altogether. They are not rodents, but are nocturnal members of the order Eulipotyphla, family erinaceidea, and are found throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. While the fossil record is not clear, there is an early candidate dated to 125 million years ago in Spain, and one in British Columbia from 52 million years ago, despite their absence in the New World now.

The name comes from Middle English, referring to its prevalence in hedges and its somewhat porcine appearance. A group of hedgehogs is called an array.
Gestation, depending on species, lasts 35 to 58 days, with litter size typically between three and four babies for larger species, and five to six for smaller ones. The babies are born with intact spines, which are covered with a fluid-filled membrane to protect the mother during birth.

That membrane disappears within a day.

Hedgehog spines, numbering about 5,000, do not have barbs, are uniform in size, and are tightly embedded in the skin, so that they do not come loose when attacked by a predator. Therefore hedgehogs protect themselves by curling into a ball by tensing a muscle along the fur-quill interface, which acts as a drawstring to protect the non-barbed face, feet and belly.

Hedgehogs hibernate during cold weather. They were introduced to New Zealand in 1868 to remind the colonists of their homeland as well as help control garden pests such as slugs, snails and grass grubs, although they eat roots and berries also.

Unfortunately, as had happened with many introduced species, they have become pests by preying on local invertebrates, skinks (a type of lizard), as well as eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds. Although illegal in New York City, there are domesticated hedgehogs kept as pets.

It turns out that there are three more mammals with spines, so maybe this topic is worthy of another installment.

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