The Bizarre Sex Lives of Porcupines

The state of the universe.
Nov. 23 2012 11:55 AM

How Do Porcupines Mate? Very Carefully.

Their stark, night-piercing shrieks aren’t just about the quills.

Careful porcupines.
Porcupines must take care before coitus

Photo by John Pitcher/iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

These days, it’s difficult to roll out of bed without being hit in the face with a four-headed echidna penis. We are living in the Golden Age of Internet Animalia. Hardly an hour passes without the discovery of some ridiculous-looking new species, bizarre adaptation, or horrendous sex organ. We’re so accustomed to this by now that we just go, “Nature’s crazy, man!” and get on with our Facebooking—er, jobs.

And that’s great! People are excited about animals and science and bizarre penises—well, penises are an easy sell—but it’s also sort of weird that we may know more about yeti crabs, honey badgers, and blue dragon sea slugs than we do about some of the beasties in our own backyards.

In forests across Canada and the United States, a peculiar mating ritual takes place each fall. If your windows aren’t painted shut, you might open them at night and listen for the tender sounds of porcupine coitus—stark, night-piercing shrieks that could be likened to the noises produced by a banshee banging a Velociraptor.

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I know what you’re thinking—quills. It’s true, the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) is equipped with something like 30,000 needle-sharp back daggers, and many of them stand between the female’s hoo-ha and the next generation of prickly progeny. But the screaming actually comes long before the love-making.

You see, the biggest holdup to porcupine reproduction is location. Except for mamas raising babies—which are known adorably as porcupettes—porcupines are mostly solitary creatures. And when the female is ready to mate, she has just an 8- to 12-hour window of fertility to work with.

This means the fellas need to come from distant territories to find, win, woo, and mount her if they are to pass on their genes. Females assist in this process before they come into estrus by lacing the air with a pungent perfume—a come-hither scent created by a combination of vaginal mucous and urine that not even Brad Pitt could make appealing.

Either way, the musk-shake brings all the boys to the yard, and once they are there, it’s a brawl for dominance. Uldis Roze knows these battles by their aftermath: “a storm of loose quills.” Roze has 35 years of experience working with these creatures and is widely regarded as the Porcupine King. (He also has a delightful new book available—guess what it’s about!) After listening to porcupines battle one fall night, Roze returned the next day and collected 1,474 quills belonging to three separate males. Some of the quills bore signs of bite marks, showing that porcupines are practiced in removing rivals’ quills from their own skin after such skirmishes.

Once a male has won access to his ladyfriend, the right to mate is his to lose. At this point, many male animals would simply mount the female whether she was interested or not. In humans, we call this rape. Using the same term with animals is problematic, but walk with me.

If rape is nonconsensual sex, then ducks rape. Seals rape. Male bedbugs stab the females with their penis and then leave it there. Water striders coerce sex by threatening to call in predators if the females don’t submit. Even dolphins, animals of respected intelligence and the default subject of chick tattoos, gang rape.

None of this is to minimize the crime of rape in humans. I bring it up only to note that the animal kingdom can be a dark place. When dominant male elephants are poached or culled out of the social hierarchy, adolescent males develop strange, violent behaviors, like wantonly murdering rhinoceroses. But not without raping them first. And while I don’t claim to know what goes on in a rhinoceros’ brain, I think you could probably define sentience as having a major problem with all of that.

But porcupines? My friends, porcupines are rape-proof. And not rape-proof like the magical vaginas of Todd Akin’s fever dreams. I mean rape-proof like the anti-rape condom.

A porcupine’s main defense against predators consists of keeping its backside to a predator. Get too close and you’ll snag 500 quills engineered to embed themselves deeper and deeper into flesh. A mouth full of these painful pins has caused many an animal to starve to death. In fact, the porcupine is so well-respected, it wanders the forest day or night without much hurry or fear. Few animals are clever enough to successfully hunt porcupines, though mountain lions, fishers, and Chevy Impalas have the most success. That mess of quills is equally effective against its own kind.

Thus instead of force, the male porcupine must use persuasion. He first climbs the female’s tree and stands watch from a lower branch until the time is right.

(Yes, porcupines climb mother-cussing trees! Unfortunately, being the second-largest rodent in North America, porcupines also fall out of trees quite a bit. At least their quills are coated with antibacterial fatty acids that seem to protect against infection after self-impalement.)

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