African brushtailed porcupine

Atherurus africanus

SUBFAMILY

Atherurinae

TAXONOMY

Atherura africana Gray, 1842, Sierra Leone.

OTHER COMMON NAMES

English: West African brush-tailed porcupine.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Slender, rat-like creature, with distinctive long tail (that is easily broken off), tipped with a tuft of bristles. (Similar features to Atherurus macrourus.) Weight is 2.2-8.8 lb (1-4 kg), head and body length is 14.4-23.6 in (36.5-60.0) cm, and tail length is 3.9-10.2 in (10-26 cm). Body is long and slender, but legs are wide and short. Body color varies from black to dark grayish brown on upper side and white to light brown on underside. On each side of jaw, five teeth are present: one incisor, one premolar, and three molars. Body covered with several types of protective spines, with softest ones on head, neck, and stomach. Flattened stiletto-type spines are found on edges of back with more thick, rigid bristle-type spines in middle and lower regions. Also has yellowish brush tail with platelet-type bristles (which can be rattled) and a group of small rattling cups on back. Partially webbed feet (suitable for swimming) are armed with blunt, straight claws. Agile, able to climb trees, and runs well. Postorbital processes are either lacking or very weak in skull.

DISTRIBUTION

Only in Africa in the countries of Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, and southern Sudan.

HABITAT

Spend days hidden in burrows, caves, crevices, or fallen trees, and generally are most active when it is completely dark outside (avoiding or at least reducing activities during bright moons). Prefer naturally occurring caves, holes in trees, rock crevices, and other natural burrows, and do not usually burrow out their own. Found in tropical forests, river forests, and island forests, at elevations of up to 7,400 ft (2,250 m). Territory is 14-57.5 acres (5.5-23 ha).

BEHAVIOR

Adults usually live in families, generally around six to eight members, which include a mated pair and their offspring from multiple litters. Families share runs, territories, feeding, and latrine areas. Groups of families, up to 20 individuals, often share resources and live close to each other. Mainly terrestrial but are also good at climbing and swimming. Most known predators, such as carnivores (leopards), large owls, snakes, and humans, tend to be scared away by quills. When agitated, quills are raised, giving appearance of a body twice of actual size; also rattle tail and stomp feet in order to further threaten enemies. If predator comes close enough, it aligns itself so its rear faces enemy, then suddenly makes a backward attack, causing quills to become embedded and stuck in enemy.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Mostly herbivorous but occasionally feed on carcasses. Primarily eat bark, roots, tubers, sweet potatoes, leaves, bulbs, fruits such as bananas, and nodules. Tend to be very nervous and quick moving while hunting for food, which is done usually alone.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Form pair bonds before mating, which is necessary because the female acts out in aggression against males with whom she is not familiar (such as raising her quills to halt the mating process). No clearly defined breeding period, up to two litters are possible each year. Females normally give birth to one, sometimes two, young per litter. Gestation period ranges from 100-110 days, after which the mother gives birth to well-developed young. At birth, eyes are open, teeth are already present, and hair (but not spines) covers the body. Young are born small, only 3% of mother's body weight. Weight at birth averages 5 oz (150 g) with a range of 3.5-6.3 oz (100-175 g, then increases to 18 oz (500 g) after one month, 2 lb (1 kg) after three months, 3 lb (1.5 kg) after five months, and 22 lb (10 kg) after 11 months. Both parents spend much time and effort raising offspring. Mothers nurse nearly constantly for first two months after birth; teats are located laterally on the chest. Sexual maturity is reached at about two years. Documented to live up to 23 years of age.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Not threatened.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Possess a keen sense of smell, which is used to locate and uproot buried nodules and bulbs, thereby increasing density of vegetation in areas of forage. Known to feed on cultivated crops; also feed on bark and fleshy tissues of trees, which can damage trees. Also carrier of malaria parasite (Plasmodium atheruri). ♦

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