Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark! To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.
Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.
As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.
Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.
It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)
Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.
Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).
If you live near a stand of Red Oak trees, your chances of seeing a Porcupine this fall are greater than average. At the end of August, when the apple supply has dwindled, Porcupines move on to important new food sources – acorns and beechnuts. While American Beech trees in central Vermont have not produced a bumper crop of beechnuts this year, Red Oaks are experiencing a very heavy mast crop. These acorns provide sustenance for many animals – Black Bears, Red and Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and other small rodents, White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkeys, to name a few.
Porcupines are typically one of the first acorn consumers, as they are able to climb oaks and eat the acorns before they drop and are accessible to many of the other animals that are limited to foraging on the ground. If you see the tips of branches nipped off with acorn caps (but no acorns) still attached lying under an oak tree, it’s likely that a Porcupine has been dining in the tree and discarding branches after scooping out and eating the acorns.If the tree is large, the Porcupine may reside in the canopy for several days. (Thanks to Emma for photo op.)
Coyote tracks from several directions coalesced in a spot where the frozen skin of a porcupine lay. There was not one morsel of flesh, and next to no bone, left inside the skin, which had partially been turned inside out. Inspection of the porcupine’s head confirmed the likelihood that coyotes were responsible, as fishers, notable porcupine predators, kill their prey by repeatedly attacking a porcupine’s head, and the head of this porcupine was unscathed (see insert). The only other possible predators would be a bobcat or a great horned owl, and there were no signs of either present. While it is possible that the porcupine died a natural death and opportunistic coyotes took advantage of an easy meal, it appeared to be in good condition, and thus it is equally or more likely that coyotes succeeded in gaining access to the porcupine’s vulnerable, quill-less belly, and successfully attacked and ate it.
Alas, yesterday’s Mystery Photo ‘twas not made by a squirrel loaded down with a bag of nuts, a guess hazarded by one reader, but, as most of you knew, it was created by a Porcupine, or Quill Pig (Erethizon dorsatum). A bit pigeon-toed, Porcupines walk with their feet pointed slightly inward, with their feet flat on the ground. Their pebbly soles rarely leave a distinctive pattern, and their toe pads are not usually evident, but under the right conditions, their nails do make an impression. Usually a Porcupine’s quill-laden tail is raised slightly as it moves, but occasionally it drags along the surface of the snow as the Porcupine walks, producing a broad band composed of very fine lines that weaves between the Porcupine’s tracks, as in yesterday’s photo.
If you’ve ever set eyes on a porcupine den, be it in a hollow tree or rocky ledge, you know that protection from the elements, especially cold temperatures, appears limited. While there is slightly better thermal protection in a rock den as opposed to a hollow tree, neither has any insulation, other than the ever-accumulating bed of scat on the floor of the den, and the entrance is wide open. Even so, porcupines save an average of 16% of their metabolic energy by occupying their dens instead of open terrain, due primarily to the shelter from wind that it provides. In addition, porcupines have two layers of fur which insulate them so efficiently that the outside of their bodies are approximately the same temperature as their surroundings, minimizing heat loss.
Porcupines do venture out of their dens and spend between seven and twelve hours a day outside, without the protection of wooden or rock walls. How can they survive this environment? When outside the den (usually when feeding at night), they are often in conifer stands, and a coniferous habitat provides the same energy savings as a den. Eastern hemlock, which is a preferred winter food, has needles layered so thickly that porcupines don’t lose a great deal of heat to the open sky. The trunks and foliage of hemlocks also re-radiate at night some of the energy they absorb in the day.
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.