Wildlife Portfolio of the Western National Parks
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AMONGST THE RODENTS of North America, the yellow-haired porcupine is exceeded in size only by the beaver. The outstanding character of this animal is its armored coat of sharp pointed black tipped quills which are barbed at the end and so loosely attached to the animal's skin that they are easily broken and carried away by anything that comes in contact with them. The porcupine is a slow-moving rodent with a waddling gait and seldom hurries to get out of one's way.

An average porcupine has a total length of about 32 inches; tail, exclusive of hairs, about 6 inches. It has a robust body, short ears almost hidden by surrounding hair, and short legs armed with strong claws. The food of the porcupine consists of buds and bark of many trees and shrubs. In the West, in winter, it lives principally upon the inner bark of the pine tree. Porcupines apparently have a low death rate. This is evidenced by their low rate of reproduction—usually one or two young are found in a litter.

The porcupine is not so inoffensive as it seems, and apparently is aware that it is well protected by the hundreds of spines bristling along its back and tail. These spines, which constitute a deadly weapon, frequently are camouflaged by long wisps of yellow hair that stream out over the head and back of the animal. Many persons believe that the porcupine can "throw" its quills. It is true that when switching its spiny tail back and forth an occasional quill may be dislodged and thrown off, but the animal does not consciously "throw" these barbed quills at its enemies. The porcupine's most characteristic method of defense consists in filling its enemy full of quills by slapping the venturesome intruder with its well-armed tail. Many a mountain lion that I have examined after it was killed had the quills of a porcupine embedded either in its paws or the forward part of its forelegs.

In addition to being protected within the national parks, porcupines frequently are protected in the forests of the Far North because they are about the only animal that can be killed with a club when people become lost in the woods.

Cliff Palace, in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, formerly was the home of a group of porcupines that had found safe breeding dens in the cracks and crevices of the shelving rock. Through the protection thus afforded, these animals increased until they had a relatively large population at this focal point. As a result, the few piñon pines and junipers in the vicinity not only were badly gnawed, but many of them were killed by the excessive depredations of these animals.


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Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010