The Old World (living in Africa, Asia, and Europe) porcupines (called “quill pigs” in Latin) take their English name from the formidable spines, quills, and bristles that cover their sides, back, and tail. Their heads and bodies together range in length from between 13.8 to 36.6 inches (35 to 93 centimeters) and the animals usually weigh between 3.3 to 66.1 pounds (1.5 to 30 kilograms). The eleven species fall into three genera ( JENuh-ruh; plural of genus): Hystrix, the Old World porcupines; Trichys, which are more slender mammals with flatter, shorter, and less-developed quills; and Atherura, which includes the brush-tailed porcupines. Most of the species have short tails, but others can have tails up to half of their head-body length. Eyes are usually small and can see only poorly, but the mammals’ small ears are very keen. Nostrils are often S-shaped and contribute to a strong sense of smell.

Species in the Hystrix genus ( JEE-nus) are stocky, somewhat lumbering animals with rounded, blunt heads; mobile, fleshy noses; split upper lips; and coats of thick flattened or cylindrical spines. The mammals stay on the ground at all times, never venturing into trees like their cousins, the New Age porcupines of North America. Hystrix alone among the porcupines has chambers in its skull that can be inflated, possibly to increase the ability to smell underground food sources. This slowmoving genus has short, thick front and back feet, with five digits on each foot, although the “thumb” on the front feet is much smaller than the other digits. Their claws are short and the pads on their feet are bare and smooth. The whole sole of the foot touches the ground when the animals run or swim. These porcupines have black or brown white-banded, barbless (no barb, or hook on the end) quills that can reach up to 7.9 inches (20 centimeters) in length. The longest spines are usually on the hindquarters and the shortest on the cheeks. Their short tail is tipped with many thin, open-ended quills that rattle loudly whenever the animal moves. If some quills detach during a fight, the area will grow back new ones.

In animals of the genus Trichys, spines are short, relatively flat, and not well developed. These more slender species, which look almost more like bristly weasels than porcupines, do not rattle their spines when they move or when threatened. The species of the genus Atherura are rat-like creatures with unusually long tails tipped with a tuft of bristles. The tail is easily broken. Their spines are also flattened, but stiletto-sharp quills on their backs and sides make them intimidating opponents. Webbed feet make them good swimmers, and they readily climb trees as well. All of the Hystricidae species are primarily nocturnal, hiding from predators during the day. Except for the genus Trichys, spines normally lie flat when the animals are relaxed, but can be raised instantly into a bristling, quivering mass when threatened. All of the Old World porcupines have large, chisel-shaped upper and lower cutting teeth (incisors) that grow continuously throughout their lives. They are reputed to be quite intelligent animals, as evidenced by their uncanny ability to avoid traps. They normally live about ten years in the wild, and average twenty years in captivity, which they seem to tolerate well.


Old World porcupines tend to live in the warmer habitats of southern Europe, many islands of the East Indies, across southern Asia (particularly India and the Malay Archipelago), and through all of Africa.


Old World porcupines generally like to live in deep burrows, which they often dig themselves or appropriate after the former occupants leave. However, they will also live in caves, rotting logs, nooks in rock walls, and hollow trees.


Mostly herbivores, plant eaters, Old World porcupines eat numerous kinds of plant material and human-cultivated crops. Some of their favorite foods are sweet potatoes, onions, bananas, grapes, corn, pineapple, cucumbers, and mangoes. They sometimes eat rotten meat (carrion) and chew up the bones as well, probably for calcium. They also chew on bark, branches, and tree trunks to keep their incisor teeth worn down to acceptable levels.


Legendary for their ability to defend themselves, Old World porcupines (like their New¬†World relatives) use their formidable spiny armor to fend off predators (mainly birds of prey, hyenas, pythons, large owls, leopards, and wild cats). Except for Trichys species, these shy, rather anxious creatures generally try to scare away an opponent first by clicking their teeth together, grunting and huffing, and stamping their hind feet, which rattles their quills to make an intimidating buzzing noise. If that tactic fails, the porcupines launch a lightning-fast backward or sideways charge toward the predator in an effort to puncture the offender’s skin deeply with its quills.

The mating habits of porcupines are the subject of many jokes and much curiosity. The truth is close to the old punchline, “Very carefully.” Old World porcupines engage in a complex courtship that occurs once (occasionally twice) a year from March to December. It involves a mating dance during which the male showers the female with urine. If she rejects her suitor, the female becomes very aggressive, stamping her feet and shaking her quills. If she approves of the male, he will stand still in front of her and then move toward and away from her many times while making certain sounds. The final phase of the courtship occurs when the female raises her hindquarters into the air and lowers her chest to the ground. The male approaches and mounts her with one paw on each of her sides, holding on loosely but not leaning on her at all. Their intercourse is accompanied by loud squeals, grunts, and whines.

The female will carry her young (gestate) for 93 to 112 days, and gives birth to one or two pups (sometimes up to four) in a grassy nest within the multichambered burrow. The 12-ounce (340-gram) pups have fur when they are born and can move on their own immediately. They nurse for three or four months, but after just a week the pup’s quills begin to form and they may leave the nest with their mother. Old World porcupines reach sexual maturity at anywhere from nine to 18 months.


Porcupines are hunted in many countries for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and for their quills, which many cultures use for decoration and religious symbols. Because of their fondness for human-grown crops, they are also hunted as a pest species. Often infested with fleas and ticks, porcupines carry the sometimes deadly bubonic (byoo-BON-ik) plague and rickettsiasis, a potentially serious bacterial infection.


Although many porcupine species are extremely adaptable to changing environmental conditions, some are threatened, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The Malayan porcupine is listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild; and the thick-spined and North African crested porcupines are Near Threatened, not currently threatened, but could become so.