One night during this past weekend, I wandered into the kitchen to look for a book I had misplaced and noticed some movement outside the front yard windows.  It was dark out, but there was enough light for me to eventually recognize a large porcupine foraging next to the porch.  I was glad to see him, assuming it was a male, but I was also glad that I was inside the house. 

North American porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) are found throughout much of North America.  They are one of 23 species of porcupines found around the world.  Because of their quills, people often assume that they are dangerous and likely aggressive.  This isn’t usually true.

You probably already know that porcupines can’t shoot those quills at you.  The quills are raised in defense when feeling threatened.  Porcupines are also generally docile and won’t charge at you unless they are under threat.   So the danger level is often one that you can control.  Given them a wide berth and you are likely to be ok.  

Now here’s something you may not know about those quills. They have antibiotic properties.  Extracts from the quills inhibit six gram-positive strains of bacteria (these are the more common types) and four gram-negative strains (these have greater resistance to antibiotics and therefore pose a greater threat).  There is a hypothesis that the antibiotic properties in the quills may limit infections in the animals. 

There’s also another use for those quills.  Remember when I guessed that my nighttime visitor was male?  Well, it is difficult to determine a porcupine’s sex for a variety of reasons. For one, they are challenging to handle.  Those quills are the key once again.  A team at the National Zoo discovered that it is possible to determine the sex from the DNA of a single quill.  This method is safe and fast for the animals and the keepers, assuming you have the right equipment. 

Finally, those quills are inspiring innovation.  Medical researchers are trying to mimic some of their properties to create new types of adhesives such as sutures for closing wounds and perhaps new painless injectors for medications.  This last idea surprises me though.  After seeing a dog with a muzzle full of barbs, I can’t see how these quills could be a model for a painless needle!

Sources:

For more general porcupine facts — https://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/pubs/documents/samples/quirks-quills.pdf

Quill antibiotic properties — https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01016483

Determining the sex of a porcupine — https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/news/sexing-porcupine

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