Mammal Monday — A Living Pincushion

They have incisors like a beaver, paws like a bear, claws like a badger, fur like sheep’s wool and spines like a pincushion. Porcupines are a culmination of characteristics that go beyond any description accurate enough to portray their uniqueness.

© Gale Verhague | Dreamstime

Porcupines are the second-largest rodent species in North America. A native Texan, they mainly reside in West Texas but also occur in the Panhandle and parts of the Hill Country. They can be seen waddling from place to place but can also climb trees.

What makes porcupines the most fascinating is their main weapon of defense — their prickly quills, which are actually modified hairs. A single porcupine is estimated to have more than 30,000 quills, with about 100 to 140 growing from each square inch of skin. The quills cover their entire body, except for their nose, legs and underside.

Quill length typically depends on the quill’s location on the body and the stage of development. Just as an animal sheds hair, porcupines shed quills. Though some depictions of porcupines display their quills as always standing up, that isn’t true. Quills stand vertically only when porcupines feel threatened. Otherwise, they lie flat and hide under a layer of guard hairs. Quills are controlled by muscles, and even the slightest touch can cause a quill raise instantly.

Upon first glance at a quill, the light-colored shaft appears smooth, but touching the sides reveals a roughness at the darker-colored tip. When microscopically viewing the tip, you can see thousands of diamond-shaped scales that overlap and point backward, resembling roof shingles. When the quill enters the victim’s flesh, the scales lie flat, but once inside, they flare open, and their barbed nature makes easy removal almost impossible.

© Randall Stinson | #inthewildhood

A common misconception about porcupines is that they can shoot or aim their quills at their victim. Typically, when a porcupine feels threatened, its quills will vertically raise, the porcupine will turn around with its backside facing the threat, and it will advance toward the victim in a backward position, hissing, teeth chattering and tail lashing. As the tail violently lashes toward the victim, some of the older quills that are about to shed may accidentally pierce a target. This is purely coincidental — porcupines are not skilled shooters.

When impaled by a quill, it is best to immediately seek professional help or jerk the quill out as soon as possible. The quill, with its barbed nature, can travel further into the victim’s flesh, especially after muscle movement. Porcupine quills have been known to kill animals after puncturing a vital organ or cause blindness if the quill reaches the eyes.

Porcupines mostly dine on trees — twigs, leafs, roots and bark. It is worth noting they are attracted to humans because of their love for salt. Campers have been known to find chewed-up boots, backpack straps or other objects containing salt from sweat.

If unbothered, porcupines are fairly peaceful animals. They are not aggressive and tend to wander alone. If you see one walking by, listen closely and you can hear their grunting, mumbling, murmuring and moaning.

Try to avoid touching or bothering them unless you want to get into a prickly situation.

To learn more about the about the animals that call Texas home subscribe to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. Whether in print or through our mobile app, choose the version that works best for you.


  1. Anonymous9/14/2020

    how does one go about eradicating them from their property? or at least deterring them?

    1. Put salt oh your neighbors property.

  2. Yes, I have seen them. My dogs too with pokers on their nose and mouth! Ouch!

  3. Anonymous9/16/2020

    Yes we were in Canada at a farm and all the kids were walking in the field, it was scarf and I think it climbed a tree. When we got back to the farm we told the grown ups and the farmer grabbed his gun and w killed it.I was devastated, never really told grown ups much after that. My daughter said the other day you never tell anyone anything. Hello! Live and Learn