North American Porcupine

Erethizon dorsatum

Order: Rodentia

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo NA porcupine exhibit with American kestrel
  • Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (CMZ) has had great success with two porcupines exhibited together. We had a 2 year old and introduced a 10 month old. We did not know their gender until a few months after the intros and they were confirmed with quill testing to be both females.These porcupines are housed with a male American kestrel.
  • CMZ enclosure for our education porcupines is 38 feet long by 18 feet deep I have never measured the height but I assume it is over 30 feet. We have plenty of tree logs to climb up and walk across throughout the exhibit. We have grass in the exhibit with a few stumps for them to station on for feeding or weighing.
  • In the Colorado winter months we have a wooden nest box on the floor and at a higher level nest box with a heat lamp for warmth.
  • Philadelphia Zoo has housed female groups together successfully, just pay attention to food consumption to make sure no one animal is getting more or less than it should be. Male female groups were also successful but females can tire of the male’s interest during the breeding season in the fall.

Diet Requirements

  • In captivity, North American porcupines eat Zupreem primate, rodents blocks, monkey chow, and salt.
  • In the wild, North American porcupines eat wood and inner bark, pinecones, and tender vegetation; they will occasionally gnaw on shed deer antlers and bones for their mineral content.
  • Diet at the Philadelphia Zoo:
    • 100 g of rodent blocks
    • 30 g of apple
    • 30 g of carrot
  • Diet at Minnesota Zoo:
    • 2 pieces of corn on cob cut in thin slices ~ 20 grams
      10 g carrot
      10 g sweet potato
    • Sunday bonus: 10 g apple
    • Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday bonus: 10 g carrot or sweet potato
      ***cut produce into strips
      101 g Rodent Chow
    • Browse 3x/week minimum (should have wood with fresh bark at all times)
  • The Rodent TAG Porcupine Care Manual is a good resource for developing a diet for porcupines

Veterinary Concerns

porcupine teeth.JPG
Photo by Rebecca Popowcer, Philadelphia Zoo Keeper.
  • Depigmentation of the orange teeth can be seen with diets low in iron or as a symptom of kidney failure in older animals. See the picture below for an example of an older porcupine at Philadelphia Zoo with early stage kidney failure.

Notes on Enrichment & Training

  • NA porcupines can be slow with the training, but some individuals can be quite zippy – so be prepared for anything when starting a new routine.
  • At Philadelphia Zoo, the NA porcupines are target trained, station trained, and are working on going from point A to point B on cue.
  • At Philly, the porcupines work very well for portions of their regular diet – figure out which food is the most favorite (and this will vary by individual) and use that as a training reward. To jump-start the training, we occasionally use extra-special treats like peanuts (broken into small pieces), peanut butter, or monkey biscuits. However, we always try to transition over to diet portions as soon as possible because NA porcupines are prone to excessive weight gain.
  • The Nashville Zoo has had luck using a clicker as a bridge for prehensile-tailed porcupines, so that might work for this species, as well.
  • At ZooAmerica (in Hershey, PA) our year and a half old NA porcupine is trained to walk in and out of her travel carrier. She is target trained and will move to different areas using the target stick. She is also trained to stay on her yoga mat. Since she goes off-site and occasionally leaves behind a trail of porcupine stink, with the yoga mat, I can easily take the mat with me, bring it back, and sanitize it. This way I don’t have to worry about leaving behind a big, stinky mess. She also will sit up to show off her fuzzy belly and turn around in a circle to show off her entire body.

Other

Colony or Breeding Management

Individual Identification

Programmatic Information

Transportation

Temperature Guidelines

Crating:

Tips on Presentation

  • At ZooAmerica, when we present her both on and off-site we bring our yoga mat, table, clicker, and treats. We use her training as part of our presentation, which allows us to talk about training in a zoo setting. As long as our porcupine is engaged, she does well. If we run out of treats or if she’s out for an extended amount of time, she gets bored and starts chewing on things she shouldn’t.
  • At ZooAmerica, when I need to pay more attention to my audience, I can give our girl a nice, big collard leaf. She’ll sit up on her hind legs and gnaw on this for a good 5-10 minutes.
  • Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has crate trained our porcupines. We can open the door to their crate on top of a 6 foot table and the porcupine will explore the table with guest standing around or sitting on the floor in front of the table. Our porcupine is trained to give a ‘high five’ behavior so kids can put up their hand in a high five motion, the porcupine touches their hand with one paw and gets a reward from the staff trainer.
  • HI52.jpg
    Cheyenne Mountain Zoo ‘high five’ behavior

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

  • At Philadelphia Zoo, North American Porcupines are not routinely handled, they are trained to crate and uncrate and station for presentations. When they must be handled for restraint (vet exams), long, thick welding gloves are used to protect the handler from getting quilled.

Potential Messaging

Acquisition Information

North American porcupines are very difficult to find reliably. The Philadelphia Zoo is interested in breeding this species to provide animals for programs and now has a breeding pair that will be paired in Fall 2015.

Comments from the Rating System

  • CuriOdyssey: Great example of a large herbivore; moderate experience is needed for this species; touchable for 1:1 interaction with guest; challenge to train for more then simple A to B.
  • John Ball Zoo: The weight of the animal and the carrier is an issue for some of our handlers.
  • Natural Science Center of Greensboro: Generally very food motivated. Best if gotten young.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: Excellent for large audiences, very trainable
  • Zoo America: Slow, but patterned learners.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

North American porcupines can be found throughout most of Canada and western U.S. south to Mexico; in east, south to Wisconsin, northern half of Michigan, and most of Pennsylvania, New York, and New England. They prefer forested areas near rivers, but may wander.

Physical Description

  • Long, yellow-brown hair thickens into quills along the back and down the stout tail. The quills are stiff hollow hairs made of keratin. The belly and lower legs contain no quills.
  • North American porcupines have short legs and well-developed claws.
  • Porcupines have poor eyesight, but exceptional senses of hearing and smelling.
  • The average length from head to tail is 26-39 inches. On average, porcupines weigh 15 to 40 pounds.

Life Cycle

A very interesting and detailed courtship takes place involving extreme vocalization, nose rubbing, and a very elaborate, somewhat comical dance. After the dance, the male showers the female with urine. Mating occurs with the male mounting the female as typical with most mammals and the quills on the female remain flat on her back so the male is not injured. Mating is nocturnal, so rarely observed, but it generally occurs in Nov and Dec.
Gestation is 7 months, yielding 1- 2 young weighing around 1 pound each. Quills are soft at birth, but harden within a few days. Young are precocious and can climb within a few days.

Sexually maturity is reached at 16 months. In the wild, lifespan is 6 to 8 years (12 to 14 years in captivity).

Behavior

The porcupine is primarily nocturnal and may rest by day in hollow trees and logs, crevices in rocky bluffs or underground burrows. Although they often forage on the ground, North American porcupines are arboreal. Porcupines are solitary in summer, yet several may occupy the same den during the winter (mating season).

Threats and Conservation Status

The only natural predators are the fisher (black marten) and the bobcat. Both animals are capable of flipping the porcupine on its back and attacking the chest area, which lacks quills. North American porcupines have no special conservation status.

Did you know…

  • Scientific name means “irritable back.”
  • Porcupines do not shoot their quills! This common misconception is probably due to the fact that prior to attack, a porcupine will shake its body and tail, causing quills to become dislodged. When a porcupine attacks, it erects the barbed-tipped quills and faces its backside to an enemy while swatting its tail in order to drive the quills into the enemy’s flesh. If the quills are not removed, they work into the skin and may even cause death if they puncture vital organs or if the wounds become infected.
  • A grown individual can have as many as 30,000 quills.
  • Porcupines can climb and swim well, but commonly fall from trees and impale themselves on their own quills.
  • Porcupines have an insatiable craving for salt and will seek it out on roadsides after a snowfall where road are salted. They may also go inside homes and sheds to gnaw on the wooden handles of tools for the salt they contain.
  • The porcupine is North America’s second largest rodent (the beaver is the first).
  • The name “porcupine” comes from Middle French porc d’espine “thorny pig.”
  • During one of their explorations, Lewis and Clark first reported the porcupine in 1805 near the Poplar River in Montana.

Photographs

Porc with Laura.JPG
Socializing our baby girl at ZooAmerica

Documents

Contributors and Citations

  • The Philadelphia Zoo
  • ZooAmerica

Top Photo: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons