In a world of such competitive nature it is either ‘eat or be eaten’ out here. In order to combat the “be eaten” part of this, animals have developed a wide array of survival strategies. Some use camouflage in an attempt to go undetected, such is the case with the leaf katydid or hawk moth. Some opt for gregarious lifestyles like many antelope, where the chances of each individual being the one caught is inversely proportional to the herd size.
Porcupines are among some of Mother Nature’s weirdest and most wonderful creations.
Others have taken the defence against predators a little more seriously and have adaptations that are so unique and different. A pangolin for example, has a body covered in hard keratin scales. The scales help protect against the bite of the ants and termites, who also happen to be trying to prevent themselves from becoming dinner. As a defence against something a little more threatening, the pangolin rolls itself up into a hard ball where the tough scales with sharp edges can even protect them from the jaws of a predator. Doesn’t always work but at least it makes it a little more difficult.
Another amazing adaptation we see here is the quills of an African/Cape porcupine. Their body is armed with long pliable spines, flattened bristly hairs and stout sharp quills. The quills themselves are essentially modified hairs. The spines and quills cover the posterior two thirds of its back and can get up 50cm and 30cm respectively. A long crest runs down the back of its head and neck. The spines, quills and crest are volitionally erectile, making the porcupine immediately appear double the size when all its quills are up. If the visible display is not enough to deter the threat, the sharp spikes put up a formidable defence when flared out. The porcupine swings its rump around to face the side of the tormentor and short hollow quills on the end of the tail are rattled to advertise the weaponry.
The quills and spines are white with black rings, which for nocturnal animals black and white coloration can often be referred to as aposematic, warning predators of the potential threats that the quills pose. If warnings are not heeded the porcupine will charge rapidly backwards towards the danger, so quickly that immediate evasive manoeuvres are required. The very sharp quills penetrate the skin and can remain deeply embedded in the attacker thanks to numerous barbs on the tips.
Have a look at this video of the Mhangeni pride and Majingilane trying to get the better of a porcupine a few years ago:
Worldwide there are 25 species of porcupine; all are herbivorous, quill-bearing nocturnal rodents. They are short and stocky with tails that vary in length. Depending on the species the quills and spines take on different forms, but are essentially all modified hairs embedded in the skin musculature. This enables the voluntary erection of them but not the ability to throw the quills as is often misbelieved. However, they do detach easily and are regrown quickly.
Most of the porcupines found in the Americas are termed New World porcupines, and have single quills interspersed with bristles, underfur and hair. They commonly inhabit forests and wooded areas and most are arboreal.
The porcupines found in Asia, Europe and Africa are primarily terrestrial and referred to as Old World porcupines. Their quills are embedded in clusters. European populations of the African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata) were most likely introduced by man into these areas.
Porcupines are fairly abundant around Londolozi in that we see lots of evidence of them, although sightings of the actual animals themselves are very infrequent. Quills that have fallen out lie on the ground, and wounds at the base of trees where they have gnawed on the bark are regular signs out in the bush that a porcupine has been there, as well as many tracks. But, similar to the aardvark, we do not see them too often. They tend to scuttle away as they hear a vehicle and hide or freeze. However I have seen a few porcupines during my time at Londolozi. Most are fleeting glimpses, and sightings tend to be months apart, but camera trap research shows just how many of them are here.
I’m not expecting my next sighting to be anytime soon though…