This large rodent is a member of a group of porcupine species indigenous to North America and northern South America, being referred to as New World porcupines. They are different in many respects from the Old World porcupines in Europe, Africa, India and Southeast Asia, and actually have more in common with other North American rodents.
Our North American porcupine occurs throughout New Mexico and the western U.S. and Canada, being absent from the Great Plains and eastern states. It is over 30” long and weighs about 40 pounds. They are mostly nocturnal, but sometimes travel and forage during the day.
They are good tree climbers and are typically arboreal forest dwellers, where they feed on tree bark, leaves, seeds, nuts, and fruits, but they also forage on the ground in grasslands and drier brushy habitats where they eat roots, plant stems and grasses. The photos I have show an individual traveling in a tall grass prairie in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, far from any trees. The fur of this individual blended in very well with the grasses, making it almost invisible—though my dog discovered it and suffered the some spines in her nose as a result.
The spines or quills are mixed in among long guard hairs on the back, sides, and the tail. While they normally lie flat, they can be erected when the animal is threatened and detach easily when a predator contacts the porcupine. The quills have very sharp points and backward oriented barbs that serve to attach them securely to the body of a predator, even tending to work their way deeper over time. An individual porcupine may have many thousands of quills, which provide good protection to as the individual will turn and present its rear end to an attacking predator.
The quills of porcupines have been used for decoration in clothing. For example, Lakota women threw blankets over porcupines to collect the quills that stuck in the blanket and then used the quills in various articles of clothing and other adornments.
Porcupines are solitary but males compete for females during the breeding season. The male will perform for the female in courtship, prancing around for her and spraying her with urine. After a seven month gestation, a single young is born furred and precocial, meaning it is active shortly after birth.
Porcupines are vocal animals, producing a range of grunts, whines, and other noises, as well as tooth chattering. They do not hibernate but may stay in dens in the ground or hollow trees during bad weather. Individuals have been known to reach 27 years of age.
James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research projects.