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Old World Porcupines: Hystricidae

South African Porcupine (hystrix Africaeaustralis): Species Accounts

Physical characteristics: The South African porcupine is the biggest rodent in its native region, ranging in head-to-rump length from 2.3 to 2.8 feet (71 to 84 centimeters) and weighing from 39.7 to 66.1 pounds (18 to 30 kilograms). Females tend to weigh slightly more than males. Even among animals known for their sharp senses of smell and hearing, this species has exceptionally keen senses. Their bodies are stocky, with sharp quills up to 11.8 inches (30 centimeters) long emerging from among the course, black hair that covers them. Their spines, as in the other species, are even longer, reaching up to 19.7 inches (50 centimeters). The animals can voluntarily erect the crest of spines and quills on their backs and napes, which are colored in black and white bars. The quills on the tips of their tails are South African porcupines eat bulbs and tubers, and many aboveground plants. Here one feeds on gemsbok cucumbers. (Clem Haagner/Bruce Coleman Inc. Reproduced by permission.) hollow at the ends, which cause them to make a startling whizzing sound when shaken. The South African porcupine has long whiskers and air-filled cavities in the facial area of its skull, while its nasal bones are larger than normal for a creature of its size. All of these are probably adaptations to help the porcupine find food more easily. The creatures walk with an alternating gait, as a dog or cat would. They can swim and climb trees well, and often live twelve to fifteen years even in the wild.

Geographic range: This porcupine is found only African countries south of the Sahara, not including the southwestern coastal desert.

Habitat: This species seeks out habitat with rocky outcroppings and hillsides, but may be found at elevations up to 11,480 feet (3,500 meters) where vegetation is abundant. It requires shelter during the day, and uses caves or other animals' abandoned holes for that purpose.

Diet: The South African porcupine uses its powerful claws to dig up tubers, roots, and bulbs of many kinds. They especially like such cultivated crops as sugar cane, pineapples, bamboo, melons, cocoa and oil palms, and corn, but also occasionally eat carrion and gnaw on bark and bones. This species has special microorganisms in its front large intestine and appendix that help digest tough plant fibers.

Behavior and reproduction: The animals dig out cavernous, extensive dens that can reach up to 65.6 feet (20 meters) in depth, with a 6.6-foot (2-meter) deep central living chamber. As many as six family members may live together in the den, and they sometimes use it for defensive purposes by running into an entrance and erecting its spines to make it difficult (if not impossible) for predators to pull them out.

Reaching sexual maturity at between eight and eighteen months, the South African porcupine is a devoted parent that cares for its young over the long term. Females are "in heat" (estrus) for thirty-five days, during which they mate with their chosen partner. This species usually has two litters a year, during the wettest months between March and April. Females gestate for 93 to 105 days, then give birth to one to four pups in the family's grass-lined nesting chamber. Although they can eat solid food from birth, the pups nurse for about 100 days. The female cannot conceive another litter for three to five months after her season's first litter is weaned, stops feeding on breast milk.

South African porcupine and people: This species is hunted for its meat in many locations where people consider it a delicacy, while the porcupine's destructive and voracious feeding habits make them the enemy of many farmers, gardeners, and landscapers.

Conservation status: The South African porcupine is not threatened anywhere in its range, although humans and large cats sometimes reduce populations significantly for a short time. ∎



Alderton, David. Rodents of the World. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

Gould, Edwin, and George McKay, eds. Encyclopedia of Mammals, 2nd ed. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998.

Nowak, Ronald M. Walker's Mammals of the World, 6th ed. Vol. 2. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Vaughn, Terry A. et al. Mammology, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders College Publishing, 2000.

Web sites:

"The Porcupine." African Wildlife Foundation. http://www.awf.org/wildlives (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"Hystrix indica." Discovery.com. http://animal.discovery.com (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"Hystrix africaeaustralis." Fernkloof Nature Reserve. http://fernkloof.com (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"Seh Porcupine-Hystrix indica." Haryana (India) State Online. http://haryana-online.com (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"Hystricidae." The Free Dictionary. http://encyclopedia.freedictionary.com (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"Hystricidae." Animal Diversity Web. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu (accessed on June 22, 2004).

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceMammalsOld World Porcupines: Hystricidae - Physical Characteristics, Behavior And Reproduction, Indian Crested Porcupine (hystrix Indica): Species Accounts, South African Porcupine (hystrix Africaeaustralis): Species Accounts - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, DIET, O