10 December 2009

Concerning Porcupines

An attractive Porcupine (Ystervark) presenting its best side to the camera and waiting for a picture to be taken

When I first started camera trapping on Table Mountain I really wanted to get a picture of a porcupine. I regularly saw their quills in the road and I knew that they must be common in the area. I also saw the little holes they dug while foraging along the dirt roads on the mountain slope.

Evidence of porcupine activity next to the road

Another digging found next to the road

The problem is that I cannot put my camera next to the road, because passers by might just decide to pick up an early Christmas present for themselves. So I have to put my trail cameras just slightly off the road (out of sight of passers by). I tried to lure them to these areas with potatoes, but to no avail. Then I started paying more attention to the small pathways in the vegetation. At first I thought that they must have been caused by water flowing down the mountain when it is raining, but then I noticed that some of them run up hill... Suspicious... It turned out these runways are frequented by all sorts of animals, especially porcupines. Some are trails created entirely by animal traffic, others are a mix of water and animal activity and a (unfortunate) few only ever see rain water running down them.

A frequently used trail

It was on one of these pathways that I got my first glimpse of a porcupine:

Disappearing into the darkness

It was a terrible picture but I was very pleased. With time I discovered some trails that are used extensively by the resident porcupines. Most are used by other animals also (including people - for hiking or jogging). This presents a problem: Which trails are "safe" to leave my camera on?

Camera trapper's nightmare: Humans (Mense)

Luckily I haven't had any trouble with passers by thus far, but photos like these strike fear into the hart of a camera trapper.

Porcupines have thick, long and hard hair of different shapes and sizes which they use for protection. The quills are often found on the ground when one walks on the mountain. Porcupines are fairly big animals with a total length of 75-100 cm and can weigh anything from 10-24 kg. The females are sometimes heavier then the males. Porcupines are in fact the largest rodents in southern Africa.

This "less feisty" individual carried her hair flatter and seemed rather "sweet" on the photos, compared to Mr Confidence over here

Porcupines eat bulbs, tubers, roots, fruit, bark, vegetables and will sometimes eat carrion. Sometimes they will carry animal bones to their daytime resting place. They chew on the bones to enrich their mineral intake and to keep their teeth sharp.

Video: Walking down the trail

Porcupines have a lifespan of up to 20 years and get one to three babies after about 3 months. During the day they sleep in holes, between boulders or in thick plant cover. They leave these areas just after sundown and return just before sunrise. Even though they sometimes share a shelter with other porcupines they tend to forage alone.

Video: First adult porcupine entering the resting place at 4:24 AM

Video: Juvenile entering just after the first adult, also at 4:24 AM

Video: Second adult entering at 5:01 AM

The videos show both adults spending time sniffing the rocks on which I was standing during the day while setting up the camera. The youngster looked a little confused for a few seconds, but then entered without really sniffing much.

They seem to be widely distributed and are still common on the slopes. They have a wide habitat tolerance and can be found in most vegetation types. They prefer broken veld with rocky outcrops or rifts.

Contrary to popular belief a porcupine can not shoot out its quills, but it does storm backwards or sideways towards its attacker in an attempt to penetrate the predator's skin with its quills.

Youngster trotting along

Some information from my camera trapping records:
* Currently I have about 40 sightings of porcupines.
* My first picture of a porcupine was on 14 April 2009.
* The most porcupines photographed in one picture: 3.
* There are only 2 sightings of a porcupine still active as the sky is starting to light up early in the morning.
* They don't seem to be bothered much by the cameras. They continue to use the same path (in both directions) night after night regardless of the camera and the flash.

(Note: I have noticed that videos don't display correctly if you are viewing this post from the email notifications, etc. To view the videos you will have to view the post online in your Internet Browser. You can do this easily by clicking on the title at the top of the email, or just type in the URL address for the blog into your browser.)

References: Burger Cillie (1992). Sakgids tot Suider-Afrikaanse Soogdiere. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik. 106. Chris & Tilde Stuart (2008). Veldgids tot Soogdiere van Suider-Afrika. Kaapstad: Struik Uitgewers. 102-104.


  1. We stay on the Bronberg ridge in Pretoria. The farm is 18 hectares of rocks and indigenous shrubs and trees. I often find quills and like you, would love to see a porcupine! Thanks for sharing your great videos, photos and information. At least I now know a bit more about them!Thank you!Marina

    1. Thanks for comment. Porcupines are seldom seen during the day, so best to keep any eye open for them well after dark, or maybe consider getting a camera trap to keep an eye open on your behalf. :) It might also be interesting to see what other animals are still around in the area.