The night is pitch black, but the interior of the underground cave you’ve stumbled upon is darker yet. As you cautiously creep through the opening, you hear a crunch underfoot. Could it be hundreds of scurrying insects? No, it’s too solid-sounding, and nothing seems to be moving. Is it tree roots? In the beam of a flashlight, the brittle little bits look almost white…
…and that’s when you realize you’re walking over a bed of hundreds, maybe thousands, of bones.
No, you haven’t stepped into the pages of a Stephen King novel, but do be careful: you’re in the lair of an African crested porcupine, and if it’s not happy to see you, you could be in for a very pointed request to leave.
He always seemed like such a nice, normal porcupine…
“Westafrikanisches Stachelschwein” by C-8 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Westafrikanisches_Stachelschwein.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Westafrikanisches_Stachelschwein.jpg
Though they may be small compared to Africa’s best-known predators (crested porcupines rarely get larger than 60 lbs.), the porcupine packs an outsized punch. Covered in long, extremely sharp quills which they will fluff up when threatened (in order to appear larger), porcupines attack backside first, with a flamenco-style foot-stamping as a prelude. These reverse-charges have been known to kill hyenas, leopards, lions, and even humans.
The quills are as intriguing as they are injurious. Soft and white at birth, the quills—which are actually specialized hairs—begin to harden within hours. Many are hollow, allowing the porcupine to swim (and often earning a second life as fishing floats). Some, near the tail, are shaped almost like a bell (with the “handle” attaching to the porcupine’s body). At a young age, the points of these break off, and when the porcupine shakes them, they make a loud rattling noise (often used as a warning to predators).
So why the morbid collecting habit?
Though they’re much larger than your average house mouse (we hope!), porcupines are rodents, and like mice and rats, their teeth grow continuously throughout their lives. Nocturnal, they often stumble upon animal bones at night, and drag them back to their caves or burrows as extremely grim chew toys.
They’ve also been known to chew on rocks and toughened tree roots to whittle down their teeth…
…but that’s not NEARLY as good a story.