Porcupine (Lat. porcus, a hog, and spin a, a thorn or spine), the common name of the subfamilies cercolabina and hystricina, the most highly organized and widely distributed of the rodent family of hystricidm. The former is confined to America, and the latter is spread over the old world. In both subfamilies the clavicles are nearly perfect, attached to the sternum but not to the scapula; the infraorbital foramina are very large; the frontals very broad; the malar bones destitute of an angular process on the lower margin; the molars (4-4)/(4-4); the dorsal vertebra usually 14, and the lumbar 4; feet short; body more or less armed with spines or quills, capable of erection by the subcutaneous muscles. - The cercolabina live almost entirely in trees, and their feet have generally only four nearly equal toes, with long, compressed, and curved claws; there are sometimes five toes on the hind feet; the soles are thickly studded with small flattened warts; the skull short and broad, with a minute lachrymal bone forming no part of the lachrymal canal;. the palate between the molars is on a lower level than the anterior portion; the molars converge in front, and are distinctly rooted, each having a fold of enamel on either side, the worn crown presenting two deep transverse cavities surrounded by enamel; incisors small; anterior and posterior clinoid processes wanting.
This subfamily contains the genera erethizon (F. Cuv.), cercolabes (Brandt), and chcetomys (Gray). The genus erethizon has a non-prehensile tail, short, thick, flattened, covered at the base above with hairs and spines, and on the under side and at the apex with stiff bristles; nostrils close together; feet short and broad; toes four or five, with long curved claws; hind feet with a distinct inner toe with claw, without any projecting semicircular lobe on the inner side; upper lip slightly notched, but with no naked mesial line; body stout and covered with a long and dense fur from which the spines project; limbs short and strong. The best known species is the Canada porcupine (K dorsatus, F. Cuv.), about 2 1/2 ft. long, weighing from 20 to 30 lbs.; it appears larger than it really is, from the length of the hair and spines; the fur is generally dark brown, soft, woolly, and grayish next the skin, coarse and bristly in some parts, 6 or 7 in. long on the back, the coarse hairs usually with- dirty white points, giving to the whole a hoary tint; the spines, more or less hidden by the fur, and abundant on the upper surface of the head, body, and tail, are 2 or 3 in. long, white with dark points; the tail is about 10 in. additional to the above length; the incisors deep orange.
It is very clumsy, with back much arched, snout thick and tumid, ears short and round, and tongue rough with scales. It is found between northern Pennsylvania and lat. 67° N., and to the east of the upper Missouri river. It is an excellent though a slow climber; it is not able to escape its enemies by flight, but cannot be attacked even by the largest carniv-ora with impunity; dogs, wolves, the lynx, and the couguar have been known to die from the inflammation produced by its quills; these are loosely attached to the skin and barbed at the point, so that they easily penetrate, retain their hold, and tend continually to become more deeply inserted; when irritated it erects its quills, and by a quick lateral movement of the tail strikes its enemy, leaving the nose, mouth, and tongue beset with its darts; it has no power of shooting the quills. The food consists of vegetable substances, especially the inner bark and tender twigs of the elm, bass-wood, and hemlock; it seldom quits a tree while the bark is uneaten, except in cold weather, when it descends to sleep in a hollow stump or cave; as it kills the trees which it ascends, its depredations are often serious.
It is often erroneously called hedgehog in New England. The nest is made in a hollow tree, and the young, generally two, are born in April or May. It is almost as large as a beaver, and is eagerly hunted by the Indians, who eat the flesh, and use the quills for ornament, often dyeing them with bright colors; it is very tenacious of life; it does not hibernate, as the European porcupine is said to do. This animal shows admirably that the quills are only modified hairs, as it presents quills on the back, spiny hairs on the sides, and coarse bristly hairs on the under surface, passing into each other in regular gradation. The yellow-haired porcupine (E. epixanthus, Brandt) is smaller than the preceding, blackish brown, the long hairs of the body tipped with greenish yellow; it is found W. of the Missouri to the Pacific ocean. - In the genus cercolabes, which includes the tree porcupines, the body is.similarly armed with spines and spiny hairs; the tail is long and prehensile; all the feet four-toed, with long and curved nails, the hind feet having each a rudimentary inner one, a small nailless tubercle, and being with the palm much expanded by a semicircular lobe on the inner side; the soles are rough and naked, the claws long, and the hind feet so articulated that the soles are directed inward; the lobe can be bent inward, being supported by several bones, some supernumerary; the tail is thick and muscular at the base, slender and bare above and prehensile at the end, the upper surface being applied to the branches, and the tail coiled in a direction opposite to that of the monkeys of the same country.
The muzzle is very movable, hairy, thick, and obliquely truncated; the eyes small but prominent; ears small and sparingly clothed with hair; the incisors are narrow. They emit a disagreeable odor, somewhat like that of garlic; the food consists of fruits, leaves, and tender bark; they are usually seen singly, and sleep during the heat of the day, feeding at morning and evening; they are harmless, easily reconciled to captivity, but with very little intelligence. They inhabit America, from Mexico to Paraguay, living on trees, on which they are expert but slow climbers. The Brazilian tree porcupine (G. prehensilis, Brandt) is 16 to 20 in. to the base of tail, the latter nearly as much more. It is abundant in Guiana, Brazil, and Bolivia, and feeds on the fruit of the palms. In the Mexican tree porcupine (C. Novce Hispanim, Briss.) the general color is black; the spines are nearly all hidden by the fur, yellowish or. whitish with black points; it is about 18 in. long, with a tail of 14 in.; it inhabits the temperate mountain regions of eastern Mexico, between 2,000 and 4,000 ft. above the sea.
Other species are described in vol. ii. of Waterhouse's " Natural History of the Mammalia" (London, 1848). Dr. Lund describes from the caves of Minas Geraes in Brazil two species of fossil tree porcupines, one of which he believes to have been as large as the peccary. - The subfamily hystri-cina, or the old world porcupines, dwell on the ground, living in burrows or caves in the rocks; they have five toes on each foot, and the soles are naked and smooth; the skull is elongated, with a distinct lachrymal bone partly enclosing the lachrymal opening; molars semi-rooted and in parallel series, those of the upper jaw with one internal fold of enamel and three or four externally, soon assuming the form of small isolated areas; lower molars with the folds reversed; the whole palate is on the same level and the clinoid processes are distinct; the upper lip is divided by a vertical groove. They are found in S. Europe, middle and S. Asia, and Africa. In the genus hystrix (Linn.) the tail is short, and the hinder part of the neck is armed with long cylindrical spines or quills; the inner toe of the fore feet is very short, with a small blunt nail; there are five fleshy pads on the fore, and six on the hind soles.
The crested or common porcupine (H. cristata, Linn.) is found in S. Europe, where it has come from N. and W. Africa; it is about 28 in. long, the tail about 8 in. more; the muzzle is large and obtuse, sparingly clothed with small dusky hairs, with scattered longer and coarser ones on the tipper lip; anterior and under parts and limbs with spines not more than 2 in. long, with which are mixed some coarse hairs; crest of numerous very long bristles, extending from the crown to the back, 16 in. long, and curving backward; hind parts of the body and tail covered with quills, some slender and flexible, 12 to 16 in. long, others shorter, stouter, and very sharp; a few on the tip of the tail are hollow, generally open and truncated at the end, and supported on a very slender stalk about half an inch long. The prevailing color is brownish black, with a white band on the fore part of the neck; the longest quills have the terminal fifth white, and the rest variously ringed black and white; bristles of crest dusky with long white points, some all dirty white; feet black; the quills vary considerably in color, but are generally grooved with several delicate longitudinal channels.
The skull may be at once recognized by the great size of the nasal bones, the development of the nasal cavity, and the highly arched upper surface. This is the pore-epic of the French, the spiny pig, so called from its heavy pig-like look and its grunting voice. It lives in rocky crevices or in burrows, becoming torpid in winter; the food consists of various vegetable substances, and its flesh is well flavored; it can erect its quills at pleasure, but cannot discharge them; besides its grunts, it makes a rattling noise by shaking the tuft of hollow quills on the tail; it also strikes the ground with its feet like the hares. Fossil bones of this genus have been found in Italy and India.
Canada Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatus).
Brazilian Tree Porcupine (Cercolabes prehensilis).
Crested Porcupine (Hystrix cristata).