Porcupines are rodents. They are the longest living of all the rodents and after the Capybara and the Beaver they are also the third largest. Their most obvious feature is their spines, or quills, which are modified hairs, coated in hard keratin platelets. Although they may look a little like large hedgehogs they are not in fact not related.
Porcupines can lower their quills and raise them when threatened. They cannot however fire them at their victims as has sometimes been suggested. The spines easily penetrate the flesh of any attacker, whereupon they detach from the porcupine to leave the recipient with the painful task of trying to remove them.
There are at least 23 distinct species of porcupine, comprising 11 Old World Porcupines and 12 New World Porcupines. The New World Porcupines tend to be smaller, with the exception of the North American Porcupine, which at up to 91cm (35 inch) long, with a 25cm (10 inch) tail, and weighing around 16Kg (35lbs) is the largest species. The smallest of all is the Rothschilds Porcupine of South America which weighs less than 1Kgm (2lbs).
Porcupines range in colour from grey and brown to white. They inhabit a wide variety of habitats including, forests, desserts, rocky outcrops, hills and mountains up to 3,700 metres (12,000 ft).
The Old World Porcupines are found mainly in South Asia and Africa and are almost fully terrestrial (they live on the ground) and their quills are grouped in clusters.
The New World Porcupines of North and South America on the other hand are more arboreal (tree living) and are excellent climbers. They have individual quills evenly distributed across their back and upper flanks.
The pictures on this page are of our African Crested Porcupines.
Porcupines are slow moving herbivores. They eat mainly green plants, leaves and bark and are mainly nocturnal, although when food is scarce they will forage during the day.
Their main predators are wolves, wolverines, martens, eagles, owls and pythons and in Kenya, where they are regarded as a pest, they are eaten by man. Road kills are a significant regulatory factor, particularly in North America and Canada, where porcupines are attracted to the salt used on the roads in the winter.