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Eastern Gray Squirrels Lining Nests

Congratulations to Wanda Rice, the first Naturally Curious reader to recognize sign made by a squirrel collecting nesting material. Many people thought it might be a porcupine at work, but porcupines, as “hellomolly” pointed out in her comment, do not leave strips of bark hanging, while squirrels do.

In the Mystery Photo, an Eastern Gray Squirrel had been shredding and collecting the thin bark of a Maple Sugar sapling to line its nest with.  Gray squirrels nest throughout the year, but nesting activity peaks during their two mating seasons (December -March, and May – July).  They build two types of nests – large, round, leafy nests among tree branches (dreys) and cavity nests, the latter being preferred during the colder months. Abandoned woodpeckers nests as well as natural-formed cavities provide additional protection in the winter from predators as well as the elements. (Drey broods are 40 percent less likely to survive than squirrels born in tree cavities — a hole no wider than three or four inches protects them from large predators such as raccoons.) Both types of nests are lined with soft material such as lichen, moss, grass, pine needles and shredded bark.

The effect of a squirrel’s stripping a tree’s bark depends on the extent of the damage. Usually a young tree is chosen due to the thinness of the bark and the ease with which it can be stripped.  Although a tree can survive with some of its bark removed, it will die if the damage is too severe or bark is stripped off around the tree’s circumference.  Stripped bark not only provides nesting material but the process of stripping the bark exposes the tree’s cambium layer which contains the nutrients and sugars a tree has produced and which squirrels readily consume. (Eastern Gray Squirrel photos by Margaret Barker Clark)

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Bobcats Foraging

Bobcats are active all winter, particularly at dawn and dusk, when their primary prey (hares and cottontails) are active.  Mice and voles are also a significant part of their diet, and occasionally larger-bodied male Bobcats successfully prey on White-tailed Deer.  The pictured tracks reveal that while foraging for food, a Bobcat discovered the remains of a Porcupine that had been killed and skinned by a Fisher.

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Red Elderberry Attracts Wildlife Year Round

The pollinated and fertilized white flowers of Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) have recently developed into the red fruit for which this plant is named. Many people are familiar with its relative, Common Elderberry (S. canadensis), which produces dark purple fruit that is used to make jams, jellies, pies and elderberry wine.  While Red Elderberry fruit can be used to make all of these, its raw berries are toxic.  Red Elderberry’s popularity is greatest with pollinators, birds and four-footed mammals.

The cyanide-producing toxins in its flowers, (raw) fruit, stems, bark, leaves and roots do not seem to discourage wildlife’s attraction to Red Elderberry.  The odor of its flowers, its nectar, and its highly nutritious pollen attract many ants, bees, wasps and flies.  At least 50 species of songbirds eat the bright red fruits, including red-eyed vireos, ruffed grouse, song sparrows, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, and thrushes. Squirrels, mice, raccoons, and black bears also eat the fruit. Porcupines, mice and snowshoe hares eat the buds and bark in winter. The foliage is usually avoided by herbivores, although white-tailed deer and moose browse on it occasionally.

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Muskrats & Spatterdock

6-12-19 muskrat eating water lily flower bud1B0A0488Cattails, sedges, rushes, water lilies and grasses make up the bulk of a Muskrat’s diet although these aquatic rodents have been known to occasionally dine on fish, crustaceans and freshwater clams.

Muskrats typically don’t eat their food where they find it – they usually bring it out to a feeding platform in the water, which provides them with some protection from predators. However, they make an exception for Bullhead Pond-lily flower buds (Nuphar variegata), also known as Spatterdock, which they often devour on the spot wherever they find them (see photo). Beavers, Porcupines (yes, Porcupines can swim), White-tailed Deer and waterfowl also dine on the leaves, rhizomes, buds, flowers and seeds of Bullhead Pond-lilies.

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Porcupines Giving Birth

porcupine IMG_3096Towards the end of April/beginning of May, Porcupines give birth to one offspring. The newborn is covered with quills, but they are soft and enclosed in a sac, which protects the mother as she gives birth to her young. The young Porcupine’s eyes are open, and it is fully alert. Its quills harden within an hour. The Porcupine starts supplementing its mother’s milk with vegetation after the first two weeks, but isn’t completely weaned for four months.

During the day the young Porcupine stays hidden in a crevice or at the base of a tree near the tree in which its mother rests. Instinct takes over immediately in the face of danger, as it tucks its head down, turns its back to the predator and vigorously flicks its tiny, two-inch tail. When night falls, the mother and young Porcupine reunite. (Photo: days-old Porcupine)

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Porcupine Quills

2-25-19 porcupine IMG_6292Porcupines possess roughly 30,000 quills — hollow, modified hairs which are made from the same material (keratin) as feathers,claws, scales, hairs and fingernails. They cannot “shoot” their quills anymore than we can shoot our hair, but their subcutaneous muscles can cause the quills to become erect as well as loosen them so that when touched, the quills are easily released. Each quill possesses between 700 and 800 barbs along the four millimeters or so nearest its tip. It is these barbs that help a quill remain embedded in the tissue of a predator.

Researchers have found that barbed quills penetrate deeper into muscle than quills without barbs, and require half the penetration force. They have been found to be four times harder to pull out than barbless quills. It has been suggested that the barbs ease the quill’s penetration by concentrating force along the edges of the barbs, similar to how the serrations on a knife blade make cutting meat easier.

Fortunately for porcupines, their quills are covered with a natural antibiotic which protects a porcupine from infection should it be impaled by one of its own quills or one from another porcupine. (Photo: porcupine with quills from another porcupine embedded in nose)

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The Sniff Test

1-30-19 red fox marking img_7153When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.

At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.

Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)

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Porcupine Trails

1-12-18 mystery photo 049A2042Porcupines are forced to exert a lot of effort if they are in need of food and the snow is deep. Unlike many rodents that are light enough to travel on top of the snow, Porcupines must plow their way through it. Their weight, short legs, and bare footpads make traveling in snow challenging, to say the least.

If the snow is deep, the winter ranges of Porcupines are considerably smaller (18 acres in one research study) than their summer ranges (160 acres in same study).  Because of the energy needed to travel through the snow, Porcupines usually feed just a short distance from their winter dens, more often than not within 200 feet. Their feeding trails from rocky or hollow tree dens to their woody food sources (often Eastern Hemlock-note bits of branches on snow in photo, American Beech and Sugar Maple), are very distinctive. They are used every night when Porcupines leave their dens to feed and again several hours later when they return.  These trails become well marked with urine, and less frequently with scat and quills. (Photo insert: Porcupine rock den entrance)

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Squirrels Digging For False Truffles

5-10-17 false truffles 032

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.)

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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many 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).

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Porcupines Foraging For Acorns

10-12-16-porcupine-20161011_4950If 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.)

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Porcupine Preyed Upon By Coyotes

2-15-16 dead porcupine  086Coyote 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.

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Porcupine Tracks

2-5-16 w's porcupine IMG_3938Alas, 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.

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Porcupines Staying Warm Inside & Outside of Dens

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.

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Porcupine Artistry

1-5-16 porcupine incisor marks  634The 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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Bountiful Apple Crop A Double-edged Sword When It Comes To Porcupines

11-5-15 apples and porcupines 011The outstanding apple crop this year bodes well for the fecundity of the white-tailed deer, mouse, black bear, raccoon, wild turkey and porcupine populations this coming year. There are other more subtle ramifications of this year’s bountiful soft mast production, however, one of which is an increase in porcupine salt-seeking behavior.

Porcupines are avid consumers of apples. Typically, the supply of apples is depleted by the end of August, when porcupines move on to beechnuts and acorns. However, this year the apple crop was so plentiful that many apple trees still bear fruit and will provide sustenance for wildlife well into the winter. High in carbohydrates, apples help porcupines gain the extra weight necessary to help them survive through the winter months.

That said, apples have a relatively low pH and are acidic, some varieties more than others. Porcupines prefer the less acidic apples, but even these contain several hundred times more organic acid than other food, such as poplar or basswood leaves, that porcupines consume in the summer. High acid intake impairs sodium resorption in mammalian kidneys, causing porcupines to lose sodium in their urine. Consequently, as a result of a high proportion of apples in their diet, porcupines seek extra sodium. While they find salt in aquatic plants, insects, animal bones and outer bark, porcupines are also drawn to plywood, car tires, outhouses, sweat-soaked tool handles and other human-related sources of sodium. This would be a good year to make sure your hammers, hoes, rakes and shovels are well out of the reach of quill pigs. (Insert shows porcupine incisor grooves in flesh of apple. Porcupines often leave cores, avoiding eating the cyanide-rich apple seeds.)

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Porcupines Foraging

10-1-15  porcupine in leaves IMG_2537There are a few weeks in September and October when acorns (and beechnuts) are mature enough to eat, but haven’t yet fallen to the ground. Porcupines take advantage of this nutritious supply of food that is not yet accessible to small rodents, deer and turkeys, and climb oak trees to consume acorns. Because an average porcupine weighs between 12 and 35 pounds, it is unable to climb all the way out to the end of a branch, where acorns are located, so it nips off the tips of fruit-bearing branches and then scoops out the acorn, leaving the cap still attached to the branch (diagnostic porcupine sign). When all the acorns on a branch have been eaten, the branch is discarded. You can often find many of these branch tips, or “nip twigs,” in the canopy of large oaks on a good mast year, but inevitably some fall to the ground. The end of the twig is usually cut at a 45° angle, and often you can see the lines made by the porcupine’s incisors. (Beechnuts are also harvested in this manner, as are the cones and terminal buds of eastern hemlock in winter.) Red squirrels also nip twigs in order to reach fruit, but typically do so when they harvest the cones and terminal buds of conifers. (Thanks to Ethel & Michael Weinberger for photo opportunity)

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Porcupines Marking Dens

3-25-15 porcupine den IMG_9681Often, at this time of year, porcupines stake out their den trees (if they’re not inhabiting rocky ledges) by eating patches of inner bark, or cambium, with the exposed fresh inner wood announcing their occupancy. Typically, if a tree den is used year after year, they gnaw off a portion of bark each year, sometimes eating the old, scarred portion which, due to previous chewing, lacks cambium cells, indicating that this behavior is not for the purpose of obtaining nutrients. (photo: porcupine chewing near hollow tree den entrance)

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Porcupine Cecum

3-6-15 porcupine2 IMG_5163Your guesses were outstanding – especially “Pinocchio scat” and “petrified baby hippopotamus”– and a couple of readers even nailed it: part of the intestines of a porcupine. (Many of you suggested it might be a black bear’s fecal plug – not a bad guess – though any bear that had to pass something this large when it woke up might decide to hibernate year round.)

Mystery Photo Explanation: A fisher killed and ate a porcupine, choosing not to eat (and leaving behind) a portion of the porcupine’s digestive tract called a cecum – a sac located between the large and small intestine where the cellulose in leaves and bark that a porcupine eats are broken down.

During the warmer seasons of the year, porcupines feed on sugar maple buds, leaves of basswood, aspen and beech saplings, grasses and other herbaceous plants, apples, acorns and beech nuts. In winter, their diet consists mostly of leaves (mainly eastern hemlock in the Northeast), which contain low levels of nutrients and high levels of dietary fiber. Certain mammals and birds possess specific bacteria that secrete enzymes capable of digesting the cellulose in fiber (beavers, hares, rabbits and ruffed grouse come to mind) through the process of fermentation. Because these enzymes work slowly, the digestive tract of a porcupine is very long (26% of a porcupine’s total weight) and the fiber passes through it slowly.

A majority of the bacterial activity in a porcupine’s digestive system takes place in the cecum, which is about the same size as a porcupine’s stomach. Here fermentation turns finely ground woody material into molecules small enough to be absorbed by the porcupine’s body. (A process referred to as “hind gut fermentation.”) Research shows that 16% of a porcupine’s energy requirements are supplied by the porcupine’s cecal fermentation.

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Fisher Scat

1-21-15  fisher scat-crayfish 012For seekers of animal signs, tracking a fisher is a most rewarding endeavor. Fishers are constantly marking their territory – rolling on and breaking limbs of conifer saplings as well as urinating and defecating on or near saplings or on prominent, elevated stumps or rocks.

More than other members of the weasel family, Fishers can control the amount of scat they deposit, so that there can be a minuscule amount, or a full-size scat (2” – 7” long). Perhaps because of their predilection for marking with their scat frequently, they often use this medium sparingly.

The color of Fisher scat is usually dark brown or black, but once in a great while one happens upon fisher scat that is bright orange – a sure sign that the fisher has lived up to its aquatic name and has dined on crayfish in the recent past. Fishers primarily prey on snowshoe hares, porcupines, ground-nesting birds and smaller rodents. However, they do frequent streams that remain open in the winter, where they hunt for crayfish and, very rarely, fish.

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Porcupine Feet Designed for Climbing

porcupine foot IMG_2659Porcupines spend a lot of their life climbing on and clinging to trees due to their woody diet. In addition to strong, curved nails that fit into bark crevices, the soles of their feet have a pebbly surface with very little fur. The bumpy texture increases the surface area and the friction when a porcupine’s feet are in contact with a branch, helping the porcupine hold onto the tree trunk and branches. Even so, examination of porcupine skeletons confirms that many have fractures that have healed, indicating that a significant number of porcupines, while their bodies are adapted for climbing, still experience falls during their lifetime. (Photos: porcupine footpad; insert – porcupine footpad in fisher scat)

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Porcupines Entering Winter Dens

porcupine IMG_2597During the summer, porcupines are almost always found out in the open. At the end of October/beginning of November porcupines den up for the winter in the Northeast, with up to a dozen porcupines sharing the same den. While some adult males will spend days at a time in a conifer, most porcupines seek out rocky crevices in which to spend the day, with a smaller number finding shelter in hollow trees. Porcupines are hardy creatures – while dens do protect porcupines from heat loss, they contain no insulation, the entrances are open and the porcupines don’t huddle together for warmth. In addition, porcupines emerge from their dens to feed at night, when outside temperatures are lowest. (And yes, that is porcupine scat that is stuck in/on the porcupine’s quills.)

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Beaver-Porcupine Encounter

beaver with quills2  376A Porcupine’s 30,000 quills effectively defend it against two and four-legged enemies, and occasionally against its own species. Rarely, however, do we see evidence of this mode of defense outside of our family dogs, most of whom are challenged when it comes to learning from the experience. From the size of the quills in this Beaver, one can assume it came in contact with either the Porcupine’s upper back or neck, where the quills are longest (up to 4”). How and where this encounter took place is a mystery. Porcupines can and do swim – their quills are filled with a spongy material which may enhance their buoyancy. So it’s within the realm of possibility that these two rodents met in the water, but that seems unlikely. While some quill injuries result in death, a surprising number of victims recover. One researcher observed that the quills he saw in a raccoon’s muzzle were worn down to a stubble within a week. Due to tiny barbs on the end of the quill that contacts another animal, it can work itself into an animal’s body, but those in this Beaver will hopefully come to rest against its jawbones. As long as the Beaver can eat, its chances of survival are good. It is unlikely to get an infection from the quills, as they’re coated with fatty acids that inhibit the growth of bacteria (in case the Porcupine stabs itself?)

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Porcupettes Being Born

5-20-14 porcupine IMG_3143This newborn porcupine is about a foot long from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, weighs roughly a pound and has quills about one-inch long. It will nurse from its mother for the next two months, but within two weeks will be feeding on vegetation as well. Because its offspring is precocial (capable of traveling and feeding on its own soon after birth), the porcupine’s mother provides care for her one offspring only for a week or two before leaving it to fend for itself.

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