Gymnures and hedgehogs are generally small, pointy-snouted animals covered with fur, or in the case of hedgehogs, with spines. Each of their four, short legs ends in a flat, walking foot with five toes. In a few African hedgehogs, the big toe is small or nearly nonexistent (not there).

Overall, this group ranges from 4 to 18 inches (10 to 46 centimeters) in body length plus tails from 0.4 to 12 inches (1 to 30 centimeters), and weighs from 0.5 ounces to 4.4 pounds (15 to 2,000 grams). Most members of this group have bodies about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) long, and short, sometimes barely noticeable tails. A few, however, have longer tails and larger bodies. For example, the Madagascar hedgehog has a grasping tail that can be more than two times the length of its body. The Malayan moonrat is the largest member of this family. With a body that can reach 16 to 18 inches (41 to 46 centimeters) long and a tail that stretches up to 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) long, this animal can measure more than 2 feet (0.6 meters) long from snout to tail tip and weigh up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms).


Where do hedgehogs live? Gymnures and hedgehogs are found in parts of Africa, Eurasia, central Asia, and southeast Asia. New Zealand is also home to a healthy population introduced by humans. Hedgehogs tend toward the cooler climates, while gymnures and moonrats demand tropical and subtropical areas.


Members of this family thrive in a number of varying habitats on land, usually living and feeding at ground level and, in some species, in burrows. A few, like the moonrat, may take an occasional swim in the water. Gymnures prefer humid forests, while hedgehogs can live in a dry and rocky desert, a busy city park, or a mountainside meadow. In fact, hedgehogs can survive almost anywhere they can find food during their nighttime hunts and sheltered hideaways for their daytime slumber.


The diet of hedgehogs and gymnures can include a variety of things, but they mostly eat insects, spiders, worms and other invertebrates, animals without backbones. If they are big enough to kill a reptile, amphibian, or a small mammal, they will do so once in a while. Sometimes they will also eat fungi or fruit. In addition, hedgehogs often prey on birds’ eggs. They spend most of their active hours either looking for food or eating it.


Most members of this family are nocturnal, active only at night. Some species, like the lesser gymnure, may venture out in the daytime if they become hungry enough, but they usually spend their days resting in a sheltered spot. In the winter, many cold-climate species have the ability to slow their body processes, and essentially enter a deep sleep known as hibernation until the weather warms. The European hedgehog sometimes hibernates for six or seven months, surviving on body fat it stored when it was active earlier in the year. Warm-climate species do not have to contend with bitter winters, but they do sometimes face extended dry periods, or droughts, when food can become scarce.

During droughts, many will enter a deep sleep, called estivation (est-ih-VAY-shun), which is similar to hibernation.

Adult gymnures and hedgehogs typically live alone. They protect a territory by marking its edges with often-powerful scents and by threatening other adults to stay away with raspy hisses. If a predator approaches, hedgehogs take on a defensive posture by rolling into a ball and standing their spines on end—turning themselves into living pin cushions. Gymnures have no spines for protection and instead try to stay out of sight of predators as often as possible, hiding beneath piles of branches or leaves, among tree roots, or sometimes in burrows dug by other animals.

Adult gymnures and hedgehogs give up their solitary existence during mating periods, and the females welcome males with the same types of hisses they used earlier in the year to scare them away from their territories. Because of their spines, hedgehog mating can be tricky. To accomplish it, the female smoothes down her spines, so the male can approach without being hurt. After mating, the male leaves and returns to his solitary life. Females, on the other hand, must care for the two to five, blind and helpless babies now living in the nest. The young stay with the mother for five to seven weeks until they are ready to survive on their own.


The most intense relationships between people and this family surround the hedgehogs. Gardeners often consider a hedgehog in the yard a helpful addition that will suppress insect and spider numbers. On the other hand, poultry farmers dislike hedgehogs, which are quite fond of eggs and will occasionally eat a chick.

Superstitions in some cultures view a hedgehog as a good omen, and some folk remedies call for the use of blood or some other part of a hedgehog. Historically, hedgehogs have also been killed for their meat, and for their spines to use to comb newly cut sheep wool.


Seven species of this family are at some risk, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The dwarf gymnure is Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. In addition, three species are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild, and two species are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. In addition, one is considered Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but may become so. Many of these species live in small areas, and human activities like logging and new farms are destroying their limited habitats.