North African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata)

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North African crested porcupine scavenging on the ground
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North African crested porcupine fact file

North African crested porcupine description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderRodentia
FamilyHystricidae
GenusHystrix (1)

The North African crested porcupine (Hystrix cristata) is the largest porcupine in the world (3). The black and white quills along the head and back of this spiny mammal can be raised into a crest, hence its common name of crested porcupine (3). These sturdy, sharp quills, which are about 35 centimetres long and marked with alternating light and dark bands, provide highly effective protection against predators (2).

The underside of the North African crested porcupine’s short body is covered in rough dark-brown or black bristles (3). It has thick legs (3), with four well-developed, clawed digits on its forefeet and five digits on its hindfeet (2). Its eyes and ears are very small (2).

Porcupine species in the genus Hystrix are distinct from porcupines in other genera in having a shorter tail that bears special quills at the end (2). These tail quills are broad, thin-walled and hollow at the tip, so that when vibrated, such as when the animal is threatened or aggressive, they produce a hiss-like rattle (2).

Also known as
Crested porcupine.
French
Porc-épic à Crete, Porc-épic du Nord de l'Afrique.
Spanish
Puercoespín.
Size
Body length: 63 - 93 cm (2)
Tail length: 8 - 17 cm (2)
Weight
10 - 30 kg (2)
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North African crested porcupine biology

The North African crested porcupine has a primarily herbivorous diet, comprising bark, roots, tubers, rhizomes, bulbs, fallen fruit and cultivated crops (1) (2), although it will occasionally supplement this diet with insects, small vertebrates and carrion (2). It may gnaw on the bones when feeding on carrion, which not only allows the porcupine to sharpen its incisors, but also provides a source of essential calcium (2) (4).

The teeth and digestive system of the  North African crested porcupine are well-adapted for its diet of largely plant matter. It has sharp, chisel-like incisors, high-crowned teeth with chewing surfaces for grinding plant cells. Undigested fibres are retained in the porcupine’s enlarged appendix and in part of the large intestine where they are broken-down by symbiotic gut microorganisms (4).

The North African crested porcupine is nocturnal and all foraging activity takes place during the night, before it returns to a den where it resides during the day (1). It forages alone and will travel long distances in search of food – up to 15 kilometres each night (3).

Despite being a solitary forager, the North African crested porcupine lives in small family groups consisting of an adult pair with their young (4). They live together sharing an elaborate burrow system (5), which they may remain in during winter, although they do not undergo true hibernation (2).

The North African crested porcupine is monogamous (4). Mating takes place at night (5), which, due to the North African crested porcupine’s spiny body, is a thorny task, and involves the male adopting a very particular mating position (4).

Females usually have only one litter per year, containing one or two, occasionally three, offspring (2). The young are born in the wet season (3), after a gestation period of 112 days, in a separate grass-lined birth chamber within the burrow system (2). North African crested porcupine young are well-developed at birth, with open eyes and developed incisors, although the spines on the back are soft (4). The young porcupines, known as ‘porcupettes’, have five white stripes on their sides that fade after four weeks-of-age (4).

The porcupettes leave the den for the first time within just one week after birth, coinciding with the time when their spines begin to harden (4). Porcupettes feed on the female’s milk during the first two to three weeks of life, after which they begin to consume solid food (4). Individuals reach sexual maturity just prior to attaining their adult weight at one or two years of age (4).

Predators of the North African crested porcupine include lions, leopards, large birds of prey and hyenas (4). When confronted, the North African crested porcupine raises and fans its quills to appear large and imposing. If this fails to deter the predator, the North African crested porcupine will proceed to stamp its feet, whirr its quills to produce a rattling sound, and will then charge its enemy, back-end first, attempting to stab its enemy with its thicker, shorter quills. The deep wounds inflicted from these attacks can prove fatal and crested porcupines have been known to injure lions, leopards, hyenas and even humans (2).

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North African crested porcupine range

The North African crested porcupine occurs in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and in the Mediterranean regions of mainland Italy and the island of Sicily (1).

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North African crested porcupine habitat

The highly adaptable North African crested porcupine inhabits a wide range of habitats, including forests, Mediterranean shrubland, rocky areas and croplands (2) (4). During the day it shelters in dens, which may be in caves, rock crevices or unused aardvark (Orycteropus afer) holes, or the North African crested porcupine may dig its own burrow (2).

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North African crested porcupine status

The North African crested porcupine is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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North African crested porcupine threats

As the North African crested porcupine eats cultivated crops such as corn, pumpkin, sweet potato, cassava and young cotton plants, and may gnaw on plantation trees, many farmers consider them to be agricultural pests and tragically the North African crested porcupine has been, and continues to be, persecuted by farmers. In parts of its range some farmers illegally control crested porcupines with poison bait (1).

In addition, in most of the North African crested porcupine’s range - in both Europe and Africa - these animals are hunted for human consumption, and porcupine meat is considered a delicacy in areas such as North and West Africa (1).

The North African crested porcupine is also killed for its quills, which are used as ornaments and talismans (lucky charms) (2). In Morocco, porcupines are killed and sold in local markets, to be used in traditional ‘medicines’ and witchcraft (1).

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North African crested porcupine conservation

International and national laws prohibit hunting of the North African crested porcupine in Europe, although illegal hunting for its meat sadly continues (1). Outside of Europe, the North African crested porcupine is not afforded legal protection, although it does occur in several protected areas throughout its range (1).

Although the North African crested porcupine is not currently considered to be threatened with extinction, it is classed as an Endangered species in Morocco, where it would benefit from further conservation action. It has been recommended that harvesting levels, especially in North and West Africa, and their effects upon porcupine populations, need to be investigated (1).

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Find out more

Discover more about the crested porcupine:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Carrion
The flesh of a dead animal.
Genus
(plural genera) a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Gestation
The state of being pregnant; the period from conception to birth.
Herbivorous
Having a diet that comprises only vegetable matter.
Hibernation
A winter survival strategy characteristic of some mammals in which an animal’s metabolic rate slows down and a state of deep sleep is attained. Whilst hibernating, animals survive on stored reserves of fat that they have accumulated in summer.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Nocturnal
Active at night.
Symbiotic
Describes a relationship in which two organisms form a close association. The term is now usually used only for associations that benefit both organisms (a mutualism).
Vertebrates
Animals with a backbone, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Nowak, R.M. (1991) Walker’s Mammals of the World. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  3. Honolulu Zoo – Crested Porcupine (December, 2010)
    http://www.honoluluzoo.org/crested_porcupine.htm
  4. Grzimek, B. (Ed.) (1990) Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Mammals. McGraw-Hill, New York.
  5. Felicioli, A., Grazzini, A. and Santini, L. (1997) The mounting behaviour of a pair of crested porcupine Hystrix cristata L. Mammalia, 61(1): 119-123.
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Image credit

North African crested porcupine scavenging on the ground  
North African crested porcupine scavenging on the ground

© Peter Blackwell / naturepl.com

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