Folk stories of porcupines throwing their quills are rampant, but they are untrue. This animal can impale an attacker with its easily detachable spines, but it cannot launch them. Normally, their quills—actually modified guard hairs—lie facing backward on the body. Under duress however, the animal erects the quills, which can reach 4 in (10 cm) long in the North American porcupine (E. dorsatum), and becomes a

Prehensile-tailed porcupines (Coendou prehensilis) are found in southern Panama, northwest Colombia to northern Argentina, and northwest Brazil. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Jim Tuten. Reproduced by permission.)
The prehensile-tailed porcupine (Coendou prehensilis) exhibits a reverse hold on a tree branch while hanging upside down. (Photo by Leonard Lee Rue III/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

formidable pincushion with spines jutting out in various directions. The porcupine may then remain stationary in a defensive pose, or may charge the antagonist. North American porcupines are also known to lash out at predators by quickly batting at them with their quill-laden tails. In all cases, once the quill enters the attacker's body, its barb lodges and the quill lets loose from the porcupine. Although the quills are not poisonous, they are painful and can cause serious damage to internal organs and sometimes death.

Little is known of the habits of many erethizontids, particularly the South American species. However, New World porcupines are presumably all nocturnal and arboreal, spending their days sleeping in trees or in ground-level hideaways. Some, like the thin-spined porcupine (C. subspinosus), spend the bulk of their nights resting, too, with most of their activity centered around feeding. Mating behaviors in the wild are best known for E. dorsatum, and are described in the separate species account.

Although porcupines are basically solitary, several sometimes share the same winter den. The winter territorial range is small, averaging some 12 acres (5 ha), but in summer it is larger, increasing to up to 35 acres (14 ha). Population densities fluctuate from year to year, and may range from one to 10 animals per 0.4 mi2 (1 km2). Although not territorial, porcupines sometimes defend their winter feeding grounds from other species. Porcupine trails on snow are easily identified by the marks made by spines on the edge of the trail. Porcupines do not make a nest or burrow; they den in rock crevices or tree hollows.

Porcupines may seem aloof and unconcerned about danger, but should an enemy start to approach, a porcupine will back down flicking and lashing its tail. During confrontations, a porcupine will also chatter its teeth. Otherwise porcupines are mainly uncommunicative animals. The female may nose her young with gentle grunts and whines. Only in the mating season do porcupines become vociferous and create a variety of moans, screams, grunts, and barks.

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