The Cape Porcupine
The cape porcupine has a spectular array of quills than can inflict a painful and potentially lethal septic wound. It inhabits elaborate burrows where both parents care for the young in a clan system.
The Cape porcupine shares its home with a host of dangerous predators, but its sharp quills, the longest of any porcupine can repel even the hungriest lions and hyenas. A mane of long, white bristles runs down the neck. These and shorter ones on the nose can be raised as a sensory aid. His snout may help him scent buried bulbs and roots in dry ground. His broad feet have large sole pads. All his feet have four toes and the hindfeet also have an extra tiny thumb. Hollow tattle quills are attached to the tail by a stem. The porcupine uses them to sound a warning. Minutely barbed quills up to 16” long cover both the hind part of the back and upper side of the tail: these are the porcupine’s main defense.
The adaptable Cape porcupine is found in a wide variety of habitats through almost half of Africa. The Cape porcupine spends most of the day in an underground burrow, finding relief from the scorching sun and protection from predators. It either inherits its home from other burrowing animals, such as the aardvark, or digs a new burrow in dry earth for itself.
The porcupine is a rodent; its incisor teeth grow throughout its life. It feeds on roots, bark, herbs and fruit. Waking at dusk, it forages into the night. The Cape porcupine, like other rodents, also chews bones from carcasses to obtain calcium, phosphorus and other essential minerals and also to keep its incisor teeth sharp.
Porcupines sharing a burrow form a clan, made up of a pair of adults plus up to four offspring of varying ages. Clan members share common runs and trails, latrines, feeding sites and refuges.
Largely solitary when feeding, it uses its acute hearing and sense of smell to detect predators, it also picks up vibrations with its bristles. If danger threatens, the porcupine retreats to its burrow, but, if cornered, it rattles its tail quills as a warning. As a last resort, the porcupine thrusts barbed quills at its enemy; a tactic that rarely fails.
The Cape porcupine’s long quills make mating tricky. To make it easier, the female issues a clear signal when she is in heat by squatting close to the ground and lowering her quills, allowing the male to mount her. The female usually gives birth to two offspring in a grass-lined chamber in the burrow. The newborn porcupines, weighing about 12 oz. each, are active and alert, but their spikes are short and soft and their defensive tail quills are undeveloped. They stay in the burrow for safety, suckling for six to eight weeks.
Both parents care for the young, grooming them by licking their fur and later taking turns to escort them on feeding expeditions. For the youngsters, life on the surface can be dangerous. During the dry season, lions become more of a threat. The lions’ usual prey, giraffe, gemsbok and kudu, have scattered to find water, forcing the big cats to look for smaller prey- such as the porcupine.
The Cape porcupine is endangered in parts of its range. Farmers kill porcupines because of the damage they cause to sugarcane, cassava , and corn crops. The porcupine kills trees by ringing them, incurring yet more anger from local farmers.