Physical characteristics

Porcupines are best known for their sharp quills. Spines cover much of a porcupine's dorsal surface from the back of the head to the tail, although a few, such as C. prehensilis and S. mexicanus, are naked on at least a portion of their tails.

A Mexican hairy porcupine (Sphiggurus mexicanus) in the rainforests of Costa Rica. (Photo by Animals Animals ©Michael Fogden. Reproduced by permission.)
The spines of porcupines are barbed at the tip, making removal difficult. Curious dogs and livestock, like the cow shown here, are occasionally quilled when they cross paths with a porcupine. (Illustration by Jacqueline Mahannah)

Both of these species have prehensile tails, which they use in climbing. The spines are evident on many species, including E. dorsatum, but mostly hidden beneath long fur on others, such as S. mexicanus and S. spinosus, and in most young porcupines of various species. The claws are long and curved.

Porcupines in general are stocky with a blunt muzzle and small eyes. Their short, strong limbs and clawed, four-toed feet make them well-suited for climbing. The ears are small and round, almost concealed by the hair, which also covers the spines. The shoulders are humped, making the back look arched. The short legs are bowed, and the animal stands bearlike with its entire foot planted firmly on the ground. The porcupine is one of the largest rodents in North America, second only to the beaver. Adult porcupines range from about 15.5 to 51 in (0.4-1.3 m), with tails that can stretch about a quarter to more than a half of the total length. Coendou, Chaetomys, and Sphiggurus species have bulbous noses.

Porcupine longevity averages 15 years in the wild and some 21 years in the zoo.

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