Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 3, 2009

A Quill Pig Interrupted – Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:40 pm

In the first installment I deliberately avoided the prickly subject of porcupine quills so that we could give them the attention they are due. North American porcupines, in spite of their many charms and features, are only as good as their quill defense system. After-all, a Quill Pig without its thorny coating is little more than a giant tree-hugging guinea pig. Guinea pigs are edible and so are porkies. Guinea Pigs are relatively defenseless but have found a partial solution to this problem by seeking asylum as household pets (although they are still on the menu in South America). Porkies, acknowledging that they will never be welcome as human pets, have resorted to a wicked defense system in order to protect their tasty parts from all comers.  They don’t run, hide, or skirt danger, they simply challenge their attackers with a phalynx of 30,000 spears.

Porcupine quills are modified hairs that are mixed in with the regular hairs on the upper body (see here).  They differ in length from 3/4 inch shafts around the face to around 3 inches on the back, but are consistent in structure. Each quill is loosely rooted into the skin with a narrow base (see here) which inflates to an even white shaft that terminates in a narrow brown point. Except for the pointy tip, they look for all the world like those clown balloons used to make balloon animals. Contrary to a popular misconception, however, they are not actually hollow but are instead filled with a spongy matrix similar to packing peanut foam. These packing peanut filled clown balloons are definitely not safe to play with. The brown portion of each point is covered with backward facing scales that act as barbs when driven into an opponent (see below).

Part of the mystique of porcupine quill lore is that they can throw their quills. Simply put, they can’t. When threatened, the porky lowers his head and presents its spiny upper-side for consideration (“Say hello to my little friends!”) and the tail is poised upright for action. One reference mentions that this pose is very skunk-like. Interestingly enough, the tail and back do present a stark black & white design similar to the skunk pattern (see here). Scientists believe this so-called rosette pattern serves as a nighttime visual warning (“Don’t even try to say hello to my little friends”). When prompted to act, the quill pig squishes this stout tail from side to side on the outside chance it will drive a few quills home. Most of the tail quills are located along the sides, with shorter ones hidden under the fur on the topside. There are no quills on the bottom side of the tail at all (see here). Any direct attack by the aggressor to the back of the head, back, or upper sides will offer a direct mouthful of quills (see beginning picture). Fishers, large members of the weasel family, are one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine because they have learned to attack the unprotected face and soft underbelly.

Any quill coming into contact will anchor into the aggressor’s flesh and quickly release from the porcupine’s skin. The thick base of the quill prevents it from being driven back into the porky’s body (“Don’t let your little friends back stab you”). Once into “enemy” flesh the quill will travel inward – working its way through soft tissue until eventually reaching bone. Needless to say, this is a painful and potentially deadly deterrent. Oddly enough, porky pins rarely cause an infection because they are coated with an anti-biotic layer. Again, this latter feature is probably a self-protective feature to prevent nasty inflammations due to self quilling.

Quills are not exclusively defensive, although that is their forte. Because they are filled with air-pockets, they offer a great insulating layer during the winter. Functioning like thousands of micro-life preservers ( or clown balloons?) quills also provide buoyant support for swimming porcupines – something these animals do quite often. As a final testament to the remarkable nature of porcupine quills, they have long been used by Native Americans to ornament moccasins,  garments, and beautiful baskets (say hello to the little basket below). Dyed and woven into cloth, leather, or birch bark they are transformed into incredible works of art. Many of these quills were harvested from dead animals, like the example I found, but most came from animals killed deliberately for their quills! There is no small irony in that.


  1. Wonderfully written post! I’ve been fascinated with porkies for years, but learning quill work, and tracking them, have made them even more special. I’m glad I’ve found your blog!

    Comment by Ellen — September 4, 2009 @ 10:51 am

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