North African porcupine

Hystrix cristata

SUBFAMILY

Hystricinae

TAXONOMY

Hystrix cristata Linnaeus, 1758, near Rome, Italy.

OTHER COMMON NAMES

English: North African crested porcupine.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Best known of porcupine species, with the longest quills. Stocky body; weight is 22.1-66.1 lb (10-30 kg). Head and body length is 23.6-36.6 in (60-93 cm) and tail length is 3.2-6.7 in (8-17 cm). Head, neck, shoulders, limbs, and underside of body covered with black or dark brown coarse bristles. Characterized by spines along head, nape, and back that can be raised into crest, in addition to sturdier quills about 13.8 in (35 cm) long and 0.4 in (1.0 cm) in diameter along sides and back half

H Hystrix cristata of body, which is normally used for protection and defense. Spines are generally marked with alternating dark and light bands. Short tail is apparent, with presence of rattle quills at end of tail. Quills widen at terminal end and are hollow and thin walled, which produce hiss-like rattle when vibrated. Forefeet, which are 2.0 in (5 cm) long, have four well-developed, clawed digits per foot (the thumb is regressed), and the hind feet, which are 3.9-4.3 in (10-11 cm) long, have five digits each. The naked soles of paws contain pads; they walk on soles with heel touching the ground. Eyes and external ears are small, with sensitive hair or whiskers on head. Facial region of skull is inflated by pneumatic cavities, and nasal bones are enlarged.

DISTRIBUTION

Italy, Albania, Sicily, and northern Greece (European populations possibly introduced by humans) and along the Mediterranean coast of Africa to northern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania.

HABITAT

Highly adaptable, usually found in forests, rocky areas, mountains, croplands, and sand-hill deserts up to 11,480 ft (3,500 m). Shelter often occurs in caves, rock crevices, aardvark holes, or burrows they dig themselves. Burrows are often extensive and used for many years.

BEHAVIOR

Small family groups, consisting of adult pair and various infants and juveniles, share (often) complex burrow system. Females usually establish separate den in order to bear young. Generally terrestrial, rarely climbing trees, but are able to swim. Strictly nocturnal but may avoid moonlight. Individuals may remain in burrows through winter but do not hibernate. Quills serve as an effective defense against predation. When disturbed, quills are raised and fanned in order to create illusion of greater size. If disturbance continues, feet are stamped, quills whirled, and (if necessary) enemy is charged back end first, attempting to stab with thicker, shorter quills. Such attacks have killed animals such as lions, leopard, and hyenas.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Herbivore that eats bark, roots, tubers, rhizomes, bulbs, nuts, fallen fruits (especially grapes, figs, and dates), and cultivated crops. Occasionally consumes insects, small vertebrates such as frogs, and carrion. Often gnaw on bones for calcium and to sharpen incisors. Significant distances may be traveled in search of food. Possess high-crowned teeth with plane chewing surfaces for grinding plants that are then digested in stomach. Undigested fibers are retained in enlarged appendix and anterior large intestine and broken up by microorganisms.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Monogamous. Most knowledge of breeding behavior comes from captive individuals. Breeding occurs throughout year at London Zoo and South Africa (mainly from August to March with peak in January), from July to December in central Africa, and from March to December in Indian zoos. Females do not show aggression to familiar males, but are aggressive to unknowns. To mate, female raises tail and male stands on his hind legs, supporting himself with his forefeet on female's back. No male weight is transferred to female, no penile lock occurs, and there are multiple thrustings. Mating occurs only at night, both in and out of burrow. Usually females have only one litter per year. After a 35-day estrous cycle and 112-day gestation period, one to two well-developed offspring are born in a grass-lined chamber within burrow system. At birth or shortly afterward, young's eyes are open and incisors are completely broken through; body is covered with short hair; and back spines are still soft with individual sensing bristles projecting far beyond spines. Newborns weigh only 3% of mother's body weight. Leave den after only one week, at which time spines begin to harden. Females have two to three pairs of lateral thoracic mammae. Young begin to feed on solid food between two and three weeks, and five white stripes found on side begin to disappear at four weeks. Usually reach sexual maturity and adult weight (soon thereafter) at one to two years. Life span usually 12-15 years in the wild.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Generally endangered, listed by the IUCN as Lower Risk/Near Threatened. Species is rare and decreasing in number, especially in the Mediterranean region, due to poaching for food and being considered an agricultural pest. Besides humans, other enemies include big cats, large birds of prey, and hyenas.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Porcupine quills are often used as ornaments and talismans. Meat is often considered a delicacy. Animals are considered agricultural pests because they gnaw bark of trees and eat cultivated crops such as corn, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cassava, and young cotton plants. ♦

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