Bear vs. Porcupine

DSC_bear horizontal quills

I photographed this magnificent brown bear in April along the Taiya River in Skagway. He strolled along the river, picking up spawned-out eulachon, a type of smelt. If you look closely at the nose of this bear, you will see that there are porcupine quills embedded in its nose

It’s a worn-out myth that porcupine throw their quills, but I never really gave it much thought. Once I saw these quills in this bear’s snout, I decided to do some research. How do porcupine protect themselves; how do quills get embedded in a dog’s snout, or, in this case, a brown bear?

I figured it was a fairly passive defense mechanism and assumed that an animal tries to seize a porcupine, the quills fall off and stick into the attacker. So I did some scholarly research- went to the new “go to” source of info….Google….and found a series on Youtube…..porcupine vs. snake, porcupine vs. lion, porcupine vs. leopard and watched the porcupine vs. grizzly bear.

The bear seems curious, and does not attack the porcupine; he just approaches and sniffs around. The porcupine turns around so that its rear-end faces the bear. The bear sniffs again. Quick as a bucking bronco the porcupine kicks up its rear leg and tail, driving the quills into the bear’s nose. The bear scurries off and the porcupine ambles on its way.

I’ve watched porcupines in the wild and have never seen one move quickly.

One of my best porcupinal memories is the time I was sleeping outside in the beachgrass in front of my Mud Bay cabin. I was sound asleep in the early June morning, and something woke me up. I looked up and right in front on me, nose to nose, was a porcupine. I’m not sure who was more startled, me or her, but she ran off and I soon fell back asleep. I woke up a few hours later and wondered if I’d dreamed it. (did I dream I saw a porcupine, or am I porcupine who dreamed I was me?)

The sounds that porcupine make reminds me of the translation of their Spanish name, “Puerco espino” or spiny pig. I used to hear them in the fall during mating season. They sound like little pigs grunting and squealing at night.

One time, a porcupine came to my cabin at Mud Bay dragging its hind legs behind it. Something had attacked it, and I’m sure it wouldn’t survive the summer. Perhaps it was a fisher, a member of the weasel family. The fisher is adept at flipping the porcupine over and attacking the unprotected belly. (I looked, but there was no “porcupine vs. fisher” in the You Tube series. Maybe it would be too gruesome? Or maybe the whole series involves a captive porcupine and a series of zoo animals, and the guy who put together the series didn’t want to lose their star attraction!)

When I first moved to Haines in the late 1980’s, I saw porcupines regularly on my drive home. Many considered them a bit of a road hazard. Porcupine numbers have declined around Haines and they are now a rare sight. Its been years since I’ve seen one. Maybe its because more people have moved in with their dogs. Its also possible that I moved to Haines in a high point in some type of local porcupinal population cycle and that I have a skewed view of what the “normal” population level is. I should ask one of the old timers what they have noticed.

I did ask my friend, local naturalist Mario Benassi why he thinks the population of porcupine has declined. He said that porcupine have complex digestive systems that are susceptible to gut parasites. An increase in parasites might have affected their population.

I don’t think anyone has a definitive answer. Like so much else in nature; I chalk it up as another “natural history mystery.” There are no big bucks out there to study porcupine since they do not qualify as “charismatic megafauna”- like whales or bears. Nor are they a major food source- like moose or salmon. But I do remember seeing an old photograph of Tlingit Indians roasting porcupine around a fire. I heard that once you sear off the quills, porcupine are filled with fat so they sizzle up like little suckling pigs. And, of course, the quills can be used as toothpicks.