When one thinks of cool, effective survival traits, being nearsighted and slow-moving are not really atop the list.
Porcupines, however, are both, so the species had to make up for that in other ways in order to survive — and boy, did nature come up with some effective defenses.
The first thing that one thinks of in porcupines is their distinguishing coat of quills, which makes them seem very unapproachable. When the animal feels comfortable and unthreatened, the quills lie down flat like hair. But when threat- ened, the quills stand up on end much like the hair on a human’s arm or neck stand on end when frightened.
Contrary to common belief, porcupines do not “shoot” their quills.
When threatened, the animal contracts its muscles, causing the quills to stand up and out from their body. In this position, they are easily detached into the predator’s skin. Tiny barbs on the ends of the quills become lodged in the flesh of the attacker and are difficult and painful to remove. To make matters worse, body heat causes the barbs to expand, making them even harder to remove.
The quills are so effective, the porcupine can sometimes create a danger to itself if it sticks itself. But the porcupine is the only native North American mammal with antibiotics in its skin — and those antibiotics prevent infection if a porcupine falls out of a tree and is stuck with its own quills upon hitting the ground.
Another effective defense weapon is the porcupine’s strong tail, which it whips around for protection. Turning around to use the tail to fend off a threat also serves a dual purpose of protecting the head.
Porcupines also emit a strong odor when threatened, adding an additional defense. These defenses are so effective that porcupines can effectively live solitary lives rather than huddle together in groups.
Looking at Igloo, the North American porcupine living in the Woods area at the Pueblo Zoo, it is hard to imagine such aggression in such a cute, mild-mannered being.
This past fall, Igloo came from a zoo in Anchorage, Alaska, where she was undergoing treatment from injury.
So far, she seems to be quite vocal, so guests may be treated to a small “conversation” when they visit.