• The word porcupine means "quill pig" in Latin; however, porcupines are large rodents and not related to pigs at all.
  • Porcupine quills have long been a favorite ornament and good-luck charm in Africa. The hollow rattle quills serve as musical instruments and were once used as containers for gold dust.

Physical Characteristics

The so-called "Big Five" group of animals includes the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard. Some years back a scientist suggested a "Small Five" group of animals, consisting of the aardvark, ratel, porcupine, pangolin and the naked mole-rat. Although at first this may seem a humorous suggestion, it is a reminder that many other interesting, lesser-known animals exist.

The crested porcupine is the largest and heaviest of African rodents. The head is roundish and rather domed, with a blunt muzzle and small eyes and ears. The legs are short and sturdy, and each foot has five toes, all equipped with powerful claws.

The porcupine is, of course, easily recognized by its most notable feature—its quills. Quill length on different parts of the body varies, from 1 inch up to 12 inches on the back. Usually the quills lie flat against the body, but if danger threatens, the porcupine raises and spreads them. Scales on quill tips lodge in the skin like fishhooks and are difficult to pull out. New quills grow in to replace lost ones.


Porcupines are most common in hilly, rocky country, but they can adapt to most habitats. Excessively moist forests and the most barren of deserts seem to be the only exceptions. They have even been found on Mt. Kilimanjaro, as high up as 11,480 feet.


Natural shelters among roots and rocks are modified by porcupines to suit their needs. They will inhabit holes made by other animals but also dig their own. These burrows are most commonly occupied in family units.

The porcupine warns potential enemies of its defense system when alarmed. It will stamp its feet, click its teeth and growl or hiss while vibrating specialized quills that produce a characteristic rattle. If an enemy persists, the porcupine runs backward until it rams its attacker. The reverse charge is most effective because the hindquarters are the most heavily armed and the quills are directed to the rear.

Not much is known about the breeding habits of porcupines in the wild, but the gestation period of the African crested is about 112 days. Between one and four young are born in a grass-lined burrow. They are well-developed and have their eyes open at birth. The young leave home for the first time at about 2 weeks of age as their quills, soft at birth, begin to harden. They are quite playful and, outside the burrow, they run and chase one another. The young are suckled for 6 to 8 weeks, when they begin to eat vegetable matter. Porcupines readily adapt to captivity and become quite tame, some living as long as 20 years.

When porcupine populations close to cultivated areas surge, they can become serious agricultural pests. They are smoked out of their burrows and hunted with spears, nets or dogs, practices that have eliminated them from densely settled areas.


Porcupines primarily eat roots, tubers, bark and fallen fruit but have a fondness, too, for cultivated root crops such as cassava, potatoes and carrots. Sometimes porcupines will take carrion back to the burrow to nibble on.