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African Crested Porcupine

Hystrix cristata

  1. Not Evaluated
  2. Data Deficient
  3. Least Concern
  4. Near Threatened
  5. Vulnerable
  6. Endangered
  7. Critically Endangered
  8. Extinct in the Wild
  9. Extinct

About Us

The African crested porcupine is the largest species of porcupine in the world and one of the largest rodents in the world. The name porcupine comes from the French ‘porc espin’, meaning spined pig, and in some places they are referred to as the ‘quill pig’. These names come from the fact that the porcupine is coated in long sharp quills. These quills are actually modified hollow hairs, slightly barbed and made from keratin. When alarmed the porcupine will run backwards and embed its quills into the predator.

Woburn's 'Desert Springs' enclosure is home to female porcupine, Noku. As a naturally nocturnal species, Noku is very shy during the day time, but she always wakes up to come and eat her favourite food, banana.

Distribution
North and sub-Saharan Africa, mainland Italy and Sicily
Habitat
Mediterranean forests, scrubland
Height
Weight: 10kg-30kg, Length: 63cm-93cm
Weight
10kg to 30kg
Gestation Period
112 days
Lifespan
Wild: 12 - 15 years. Captivity: up to 20 years
Threats
Persecution from farmers, poisoning and hunting

Physical Features

The crested porcupine is one of the largest rodents in the world, weighing up to 30kg, and growing nearly up to a metre in length.

Their distinguishing feature is the coating of the head, nape, tail, and back of the body in long quills. The quills are a modified hair, made from keratin like human hair, but hardened. They are hollow and stiff, with a sharp, barb covered, point at the end. They have muscles at the base allowing them to be raised, in defence, making a crest, which gives it its common name of the crested porcupine.

The quills are usually black or brown and white in colour, usually banded, and can be up to 35cm long in places. If threatened they will run at speed backwards towards the threat, embedding the quills deep into them, often causing serious injury, or death through infection. It is a common myth that the porcupine can fire its quills out, however, just like hair, they will fall out regularly.

There are special quills located on the tail, which are hollowed in a certain way that when they are rattled they make a hiss like noise. This response is usually used when the animal is threatened or acting aggressively.

The rest of the body is covered in rough dark brown bristles. The body is stocky, with short thick legs. The fore feet have four digits, with claws, and the hind feet have five the same. The eyes and ears are relatively small. There are vibrissae, or whiskers, on the face. They can run faster than a human, and are able swimmers.

The teeth of the porcupine are specially adapted to grind down the plant material they eat, with sharp incisors, and large flat molars. Like all rodents, the incisor teeth grow constantly and need to be worn down. Their digestive system allows all of the undigested fibre from their food to be stored in a part of the enlarged appendix, and the large intestine, where they are then broken down further by microorganisms in the gut.

Diet

The crested porcupine’s diet consists mainly of bulbs, roots, tubers, rhizomes, and bark. They will also eat agricultural crops, and occasionally will eat insects, small vertebrates, and some carrion.

They commonly chew on bones from carrion, or even dig up old bones, to sharpen their teeth, and to provide a source of calcium, phosphorus, and sodium.  Porcupines will hoard bones and other hard items in their burrows, sometimes numbering into thousands of items. They are often both a help and a hindrance to archaeologists, by digging up ancient specimens making them easier to find, but also by moving and damaging specimens, often from open archaeological dig sites.

The teeth of the porcupine are specially adapted to grind down the plant material they eat, with sharp incisors, and large flat molars. Like all rodents, these teeth grow constantly and need to be worn down. Their digestive system allows all of the undigested fibre from their food to be stored in a part of the enlarged appendix, and the large intestine, where they are then broken down further by microorganisms in the gut.

Porcupines are not solitary, but do forage for food alone, usually at night time. They will forage alone and then return to the family den during the day. They can travel large distances to feed, sometimes up to 15km in a night.

Social Structure and Communication

Porcupines are social animals, living in small family groups of an adult pair and their offspring.  The adult pair is monogamous, and mate for life. This family group lives in a complex tunnel system, spending the day time in the burrow, and going out to forage for food at night time. Although they are social they will forage for food alone.  The burrow may be a hole in a cave, rock crevice, or an unused aardvark hole, but they will also dig their own burrows. The female will move to a separate part of the tunnel system when giving birth to new young, building her own nesting chamber, where she will stay alone.

The porcupine communicates through a series of noises, and body language. If threatened or acting aggressively they will growl, snort, grunt, cough, and produce whining sounds. They will also stomp their feet, make a clicking noise with their teeth,  jump up and down, and produce a loud hissing noise using the specially adapted quills on their tail, which make this noise when rattled.

When they are feeling seriously threatened they will run at speed backwards towards the threat, embedding the quills deep into them, often causing serious injury, or death through infection. They have been known to seriously injure and even kill lions, leopards, and even humans.

Crested porcupines will also use scent marking, from glands near the anus, to mark out territories and feeding sites.

Breeding

The crested porcupine is monogamous, usually staying with the same partner for life. They live in small family groups consisting of the adult pair and the offspring. They live in burrows of complex tunnel systems, which may be a hole in a cave, rock crevice, or an unused aardvark hole, but they will also dig their own burrows.

Mating usually takes place at night time, either in the burrow, or outside it. The mating season is usually between July to December, with pairs usually breeding only once a year.

 After a period of around 112 days the female will give birth, in a separate birthing chamber of the burrow which she will dig and line with grass. She will give birth to one, two, or three young, known as porcupettes. At birth they will weigh only 3% of their mother’s weight. For the first four weeks these young will have five white stripes down their side, which will then fade. They start life with their eyes open, developed teeth, and soft quills, which will harden at around a week, coinciding with the first time they leave the den. They will rely on their mother’s milk for the first two or three weeks, after which they will start to eat solid food. Males will be involved in rearing the young, and will forage along side them, and defend them.

Adults will become sexually mature when they reach full body weight, at around one to two years old.

Husbandry and Enrichment

In the wild crested porcupines would eat a range of plant materials, roots, tubers, and crops. We give our porcupines a varied diet, including root vegetables and various vegetables, to mimic the nutritional content of their natural diet. They do also love to chew, which they need to do constantly to wear down their incisor teeth, which grown constantly throughout their life. We give them branches from various trees to chew on, and large logs to gnaw on to help maintain their teeth. They would also chew on bone to keep their teeth sharp, and to get a supply of calcium, and so we give them bones occasionally to allow this behaviour.

Porcupines are naturally nocturnal, but as our porcupines have been bred in captivity, they are used to being active during the day. They can be quite shy during the day time, but will always come out to feed on their favourite foods, and we make sure that they are fed at intervals during the day so that they have the option to feed whenever they like.

Threats and Conservation

Natural predators for the porcupine include lions, leopards, hyenas and some large birds of prey, although it is rare for them to succeed in killing a porcupine due to their spiky defence system.

The biggest threat to the porcupine is humans, often illegally trapping and killing them for meat, and for their valuable quills. The quills have many uses, including traditional medicine, talismans, fishing lure, and ornaments. The meat is also a local delicacy in many parts of their range.

Due to their taste for agricultural crops such as pumpkin, corn, sweet potato, and young cotton plants, they are often seen as a pest, and are persecuted by farmers. Some farmers will illegally control porcupine populations by lacing food with poisoned bait.

Porcupines will hoard bones and other hard items in their burrows, sometimes numbering into thousands of items. They are often both a help and a hindrance to archaeologists, by digging up ancient specimens making them easier to find, but also by moving and damaging specimens, often from open archaeological dig sites.

There are laws protecting the crested porcupine in Europe, however outside of Europe in most of its range it is unprotected and levels of hunting are high. There are several protected areas in its range. Although not classed as endangered in any way, numbers in North Africa and Morocco are decreasing at a fast rate due to hunting.

Fun Facts

They have special quills at their tail which make a loud hissing noise when rattled!

Porcupines will travel up to 15km in a night to look for food!

Porcupines collect large quantities of bones and hard objects to chew to wear down their teeth, sometimes thousands of bones have been found in one burrow!

Noku The Porcupine

Meet Noku the Porcupine

Noku is one of three African Crested Porcupines living down at Desert Springs alongside the meerkats and mongoose. Noku spends most of her time sleeping and enjoying tasty treats.