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January 11, 2013

Prickly companion, the North American porcupine

The North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum for you Latin fans) is a slow-moving, large-bodied, short-legged rodent with a waddling gait that wanders through much of the wooded areas of Cape Ann. This much maligned little fellow is actually a very important part of the natural animal kingdom that surrounds us.

Although it looks awkward when walking on the ground, it can scale trees to great heights, climbing in a very slow and deliberate manner. You can often see them high above the forest floor, precariously perched out on tiny branches that seem extremely dangerous for such a fat little fellow. They can do this because their feet are uniquely structured for the task.

At the end of their paws they have very long and strong claws. They can use these to hook into the surface bark of the trunk of a tree and draw themselves along. Once they scale the tree, it is the texture of the soles of their feet that allow them to maneuver about. The soft, pebbly-like skin gives them not only a sensitive touch, but a gripping surface that allows them to hold on.

Once in the tree, the porcupine can hold on with just his back feet, using his tail as a tripod-like prop to hold himself in place. This frees his front paws up for use in pulling leaves, twigs and nuts in close for feeding.

They feed on a wide variety of vegetable matter based on the season. In the spring they love the buds of the sugar maple tree which contain high amounts of protein. However, because porcupines don’t deal with tannins well, they abandon the maples as soon as they start to leave out. In the summer they move on to eat the cambium of sapling beech, basswood, and other similar trees that have relatively low levels of tannin. In the fall they love apples, and nuts such as acorns and beech. In the winter they forage on trees like hemlock and sugar maple.

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