Legend says the porcupine got its scientific name because the first ancient Greek explorer who saw it fell about laughing hysterically. His fellow explorers gave it the family name Hystricidae.
Nonsense, of course, the legend is newly invented. The animal was baptised under the system devised by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus for classifying plants and animals. But that ancient Greek could be forgiven – you are unlikely to bump into any weirder animal in the African bush.
Most striking is its coat of long, flexible spines and short thick quills so sharp and dense it has no way it can scratch the fleas and ticks that must luxuriate in the fur beneath.
If such a quirk of nature causes hilarity the porcupine’s next trick cuts it short. When disturbed it can in an instant erect the quills and spines covering two thirds of its upper body to make it look twice as big, and it confronts any threat with a formidable and potentially lethal barrier of needle-pointed weapons.
It is a rodent, a word that brings to mind mice, rats and moles, but a far bigger one, roughly between 14 and 20kg and nearly a metre long, making it the second biggest rodent in the world after the South American capybara.
There are two kinds of porcupines in Africa. Our kind rejoices in the rather exotic name of Hystrix africaeaustralis and inhabits the lower third of the continent. They are pretty common and usually solitary except when in a family. The most we have seen together in our small wilderness is four, parents and two offspring. We don’t know which sex is which except that males tend to be a bit bigger. Even if one allowed it, nobody would be in a hurry to turn it upside down and check as you would with a kitten or pup.
We first became aware of our porcupine visitors the night we heard a light rattling sound like someone gently shaking a castanet or a bunch of knitting needles. It came from the place where Dor had dumped some vegetable peelings for the dassies to find in the morning.
We peered out the big front windows and saw nothing although the moonlight was quite strong. Then, watching intently, we saw vague movement. The porcupine’s camouflage is so efficient in the dark, being nocturnal, it was several minutes before we could make out a shape.
Dor switched on the outside floodlight and there it was in full prickly glory, completely unperturbed, munching the dassies’ breakfast. The forest of black-and-white barred spikes lay flat on its back and stern, showing it wasn’t bothered in the least by the light. Its blunt snout shoved forward to pick out choicer pieces from the feast. It was a big animal, this one, with a heavy crest of long ordinary fur reaching to between its piggy eyes.
Then I moved closer to the window. The porky (as we now call them) immediately spotted me and fled at an impressive speed for so large and clumsy-looking an animal. Their normal gait is a fairly slow waddle on short stumpy legs.
We all wanted to get a really close look at them. Seeing one in a zoo is just not the same and even there they don’t appear often before the public. In the wild they are extremely shy and head for cover if approached unless cornered, when it’s a bad idea to approach them anyway.
In our Lowveld reserve we often heard the rattle of quills as porcupines passed through the long grass in the dark. We sallied forth cautiously with torches to find them. No good … they too quick and adept at concealment. By day they slept in inaccessibly dense thornbush thickets or old antbear holes or caves.
They are vegetarian and avid eaters of bulb plant, which they dig up with fearsomely efficient fireclaws. This makes them very unpopular with home owners near the city edges who treasure their gardens but have no fences.
Porcupines were long thought to be meat eaters too, an assumption based on the bones of other animals often found scattered around their burrows, usually old antbear holes because they don’t dig their own. However, it was found that porkies drag home bones they find in the veld to gnaw on as a source of calcium.