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Graphic: What About Porcupines

Photo: Porcupines
In the lower Columbia Basin, you will often see porcupines propped in trees.

Graphic: Background Information

Imagine walking along the Columbia River or hiking through canyons in the Horse Heaven Hills when suddenly you spot a chunky, spiky critter the size of a small dog that is clinging to a treetop or ambling clumsily through the brush. Chances are, you have stumbled on a porcupine. The word porcupine comes from the Latin words for swine and thorn. Porcupines are sometimes called quill pigs.

What is a porcupine?
Porcupines are mammals, more specifically, rodents. They are terrific climbers because of their long claws, and have excellent balance. Porcupines are mainly solitary and nocturnal but sometimes forage during the day. They can live from 10 to 20 years. Porcupines are considered to be intelligent, rapid learners with good memories. Native Americans used the animal's quills historically to make quill boxes, jewelry, and other works of art throughout the centuries.

What do porcupines look like?
Porcupines are easy to recognize. They are about 25 to 36 inches long, with an 8- to 10-inch-long tail. Weighing between 12 and 35 pounds, they are rounded, large, and slow. They have dark brown fur, covered with thick barbed quills. One porcupine can have as many as 30,000 quills! Each quill is tipped with microscopic barbs or hooks that drive them deeper into the flesh of unlucky predators. Most porcupines have a robust body, small head, small ears, short legs, and a short, thick tail. Their front feet have four toes; the back feet have five toes. Each toe has a strong curved claw, which porcupines use to climb trees or strip away bark to eat. Porcupines have large orange teeth and strong jaws, just right for their rough, fibrous diet. They eat the inner bark of many types of trees and bushes. They will also munch on foliage, twigs, harder bark buds, fruits, nuts, berries, flowers, and even deer and elk antlers to get calcium.

Where do porcupines live?
Porcupines live in many parts of North America, Africa, and South America. Primary habitats include forests, deserts, and grasslands. In Washington State, porcupines occur mostly in forested areas, but also thrive along riparian zones, in brushy wetlands, and even in the shrub-steppe region of eastern Washington. Porcupines may den in rocky areas but in the lower Columbia Basin tend to be found propped in the crotch of a tree.

How do porcupines live?
Porcupines move slowly and do not see clearly, although their strong senses of hearing and smell serve them well. They climb trees to escape predators, but will use other defense mechanisms if needed. When frightened, porcupines may stamp their feet, click their teeth, and growl or hiss. Usually their quills lie flat against their back, but when threatened, the quills rise and spread out, giving porcupines a large and bulky appearance. Some folks think porcupines shoot their quills at an attacker, but this is not true. Their quills are loosely attached and come off easily as they brush against a predator. New quills grow in to replace the ones lost. Many curious dogs have ended up with a muzzle full of quills after an encounter with a porcupine! Despite their threatening quills, porcupines have many predators including coyotes, badgers, and bald eagles. Porcupines are active year-round, though in the cold winters they may den for short periods of time in a hole, hollow log, or in a treetop. They do not hibernate. They breed from November to December, and females produce single young after 7 months gestation. The newborn porcupine is well developed with eyes wide open and a full coat of quills, which harden when exposed to air.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Logo

Graphic: Notes... "Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Graphic: Suggested Activities

1. Make a life-sized papier-mâché model of a porcupine. Include the porcupine's thick head, feet, tail, long sharp incisors. Use toothpicks for quills.

Questions a scientist might ask: How is a porcupine similar to or different from other animals in the rodent order?

2. Create a diorama in a shoebox. Include a small picture or model of a porcupine in the shrub-steppe habitat.

Questions a scientist might ask: Who might be a porcupine's predator? (coyote, badger, eagle).

3. Explore the reasons why the numbers of porcupines in the shrubsteppe are declining.

Questions a scientist might ask: How much construction has happened around the Columbia Basin in the past few years? How many acres of natural shrub-steppe habitat are still intact? What about the porcupine's reproductive rate? What might threaten the survival of newborns?

4. Interview a Native American or attempt to locate quill jewelry or artifacts. Perhaps call the Benton County Historical Society for contacts.

Graphic: Other Resources

  1. The North American Porcupine, 1989. Uldis Roze, Smithsonian Nature Books Series, No 8, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
  2. A Porcupine Named Fluffy, 1989. Helen Lester, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Massachusetts.
  3. Porcupine's Pajama Party, 1988. Terry Webb Harshman, HarperCollins Children's Book Group, New York.
  4. Wild Outdoor World magazine. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, (P.O. Box 8249, Missoula, MT 59807-8249. Phone number: 1-888-301-5437. Subscriptions are available to classrooms at minimal or no cost.)

Graphic: Web sites...

  1. Alaska Department of Fish and Game -
  2. Animal Tracks of Humboldt County -
  3. Desert USA North American Porcupine -
  4. -
  5. BC Adventures, Porcupine -
  6. National Geographic -
  7. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife—Wildlife Viewing -

Graphic: Acknowledgments Logo

Initial development and printing was funded by the Partnership for Arid Land Stewardship (PALS). Project Manager: Karen Wieda. Written by: Linda McCalmant, Kennewick School District. Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design.

Graphic: Shrub Steppe Ecology Series Logo


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