The patterns that a porcupine’s incisors leave when a porcupine has been removing bark down to the cambium can be a work of art. The way in which a porcupine makes these patterns is as intriguing as the patterns themselves. “The porcupine removes the bark in small triangular patches, each patch composed of five or six scrapes converging on an apex, like sticks in a teepee. The apex represents the position of the upper incisors, held fixed against the bark. The lower incisors scrape, moving over a fresh path as the lower jaw swivels in a narrow arc.” (Uldus Rose, The North American Porcupine) Fortunately, porcupine incisors, like those of all rodents, grow continually. Even though each incisor loses 100% of its length to wear in a year’s chewing, its length always remains the same. Juvenile porcupines leave a much less “organized” set of incisor marks (overlapping, randomly placed) than adults.
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Meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus), tiny mouse-like rodents, spend a majority of their time on the surface of the ground, particularly in moist fields filled with grasses and sedges. They have elaborate runways through the vegetation – well-worn trails about the width of a garden hose which they keep mowed down with their incisors. Latrines of small brownish-green pellets can be found intermittently along the trails.
Most meadow vole nests are constructed out of dried grasses, also on the surface of the ground, although they are sometimes built at the end of shallow burrows. When above ground, the nests are often located in the center of a grass tussock, where they are less apt to be flooded. When there is snow on the ground they are a bit easier to find, as the heat of the voles inside the nest melts away the snow, forming a chimney that sometimes reveals the nest below.
Rodents have two pairs of incisors that oppose each other; two in the front of the upper jaw and two in the front of the lower jaw. These four teeth never stop growing, and thus have to be constantly filed down. (Squirrel incisors grow about one-half inch a month.) While nipping herbaceous plants and cutting into bark help do this, it isn’t enough to significantly wear down the teeth. When mice, beavers, woodchucks and other rodents nip or gnaw food, they move their jaws in such a way that these two pairs of teeth grind against each other. Most rodents have hard orange enamel on the outer side of their incisors (woodchucks are our only rodent with white enamel), and softer dentine in the back. When the incisors grind against each other, the dentine wears away faster than the enamel, creating a sharp, chisel-shaped edge to the incisors. This, more than anything else, keeps the growth of rodent incisors under control, just as a nail file keeps our nails from getting too long.
If a rodent breaks an incisor, there is nothing to wear down the opposing incisor. The tooth opposite the missing incisor will continue to grow unchecked in a circle until it causes the death of the rodent, either by piercing its skull or by preventing the animal from being able to eat. In the pictured woodchuck skull, the lower left incisor has broken off, allowing the upper left incisor to grow through the woodchuck’s palate and into its brain.
Yesterday’s design was made by a beaver as it removed bark from a tree. The light-colored, curved little “bumps” that run horizontally across the middle of the tree were made by the two incisors in the beaver’s upper jaw. When eating the sought-after cambium layer of a tree, beavers grip the tree with their two upper incisors as they scrape towards their upper jaw with their two bottom incisors, sometimes creating this pattern. (Individual marks where the upper incisors gripped the bark and the four incisors didn’t quite meet can be seen in the insert.)
The ever-growing incisors of rodents are harder on the front surface (outer layer is hard enamel, colored orange from iron in a beaver’s diet) than the back (softer dentine), so the back of each incisor wears away faster than the front, creating a sharp, chisel-like edge to these four specialized teeth. So functional are beavers incisors as cutting instruments, Native Americans used to insert a beaver incisor in a wooden handle and use it to cut bones and to shape their horn-tipped spears.
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Bones, antlers, skulls, turtle shells – all are recycled relatively quickly by rodents seeking a source of minerals, particularly calcium and phosphorus. All rodents possess four incisors, two in the front of the upper jaw and two opposite these, on the bottom jaw. These incisors, unlike other teeth, never stop growing. By gnawing on hard objects such as bones, rodents keep their incisors paired down. If an incisor is broken or lost, the opposing incisor will continue growing in a circle, having nothing to grind against, causing the rodent to die of starvation or from having its brain pierced (through the roof of the rodent’s mouth) by the ever-growing incisor. In this photograph, a gray squirrel is obtaining minerals and sharpening its incisors on a moose skull that a human wedged into the crotch of a tree.
In the winter, the bulk of a porcupine’s diet is the inner bark, or cambium, of trees. The porcupine removes the outer bark (unless the tree is young or has thin outer bark and then it eats the outer bark as well) in order to reach the cambium layer, which lies directly beneath the outer bark. At this point the exposed surface is very smooth, more finely finished than the work of a beaver. Then the porcupine removes the cambium in small, triangular patches, each patch composed of five or six scrapes converging at one point, like sticks in a tepee. The point where the scrapes meet is where the upper incisors are placed and held fixed against the tree. The lower incisors scrape, making a fresh path with each scrape, as the lower jaw swivels in a narrow arc.