When Provoked, Porcupines Kill With Their Quills, New Research Shows

By Michele Berger
Published: November 13, 2013

Porcupines, it seems, have a quiller instinct.

New research, published in the journal Mammalia, found that crested porcupines not only use their quills as a defense to get predators to back off, but also in worst-case scenarios or when they’re outnumbered, use them to kill. 

“We identified four kinds of display exhibited by porcupines,” the researchers wrote in the October 2013 Mammalia. “Tail rattling seems to be sufficient to repel solitary predators, while backyard/sideways attacks are exhibited only in extreme situations, or when numerical disparity among potential prey and predators occurs.”

The team of scientists, from Siena and Florence universities in Italy, and the University of Western Ontario in Canada, watched these mammals for a year and a half. During the study period, porcupines killed two badgers and two foxes, Science reported. The researchers also witnessed a pair of these animals forcing a wild dog into their den and fatally piercing it with their quills.  

“It’s an extreme defense, because it costs a lot of energy for these rodents,” lead researcher Emiliano Mori of the University of Siena, told “Usually the rodent escapes, goes away, when attacked. But just in rare cases, it, itself, attacks the dog.”

They’re not typical dogs, but rather hunting dogs, weighing about 13 pounds. The porcupines themselves weigh in at about 22 pounds, Mori said, adding that the quilled creatures would never attack something larger than they were.

They also use an atypical attack mode: by backing in or attacking sideways. “Their longest quills are located on the back of the species,” Mori notes. “The musculature immediately behind the skin puts the quills on the surface.” That’s one corner best not to get backed into. 

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