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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the Week 240: Porcupine quills

By Dean W Veall, on 20 May 2016

LDUCZ-Z2237 Porcupine quills

LDUCZ-Z2237 Porcupine quills

Hello all, Dean Veall here. This week I bring you my specimen of the week. I can imagine what you’re wondering… has Dean chosen some sticks from the highly popular children’s game Ker-plunk? Has the acquisitions policy at the Grant Museum gone out the window? Well look closer dear reader, and you will see that these are in fact quills from a porcupine!







LDUCZ-Z2237 Porcupine quills

LDUCZ-Z2237 Porcupine quills

1). It’s a big rodent

Porcupines are a group of 11 rodent species that belong to the family Hystricidae. The porcupine that was the proud owner of these quills was what is referred to as an Old World porcupine and wins the bronze medal for world’s largest rodent, with gold and silver going to the capybara and beaver respectively.  Old World porcupines are found from the southern tip of Europe to South Africa and east to India and Asia. All porcupines are nocturnal and quite adaptable, found in a variety of habitats, as long as there is vegetation. Although sharing a name with New World porcupines these two groups of rodents are thought to be not closely related.  New World porcupines (found in woodlands of North America and northern South America) are aboreal rodents and have a heavy coat of thick flattened quills in contrast to the crest of quills their Old World relatives.


By MarnSz at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

By MarnSz at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org


2). Quills

Porcupines do not shoot their quills: let’s get that common misconception out of the way first. The quills of the porcupine are modified hairs made out of keratin like our own hair and nails. Just like our hair, quills are shed by porcupines. When they shake, loose quills can fly off which is probably the origin of the shooting myth of these animals. The longer quills are up to 51cm long and forming a defensive crest that runs along the head, nape and back (when at rest, they form a skirt-like quilly covering). However, when alarmed or excited, porcupines erect this skirt to create a defensive display which also makes them appear 2/3 times bigger. The shorter quills are hollow and usually found in the tail area.  When under attack, the porcupine will shake these quills which make a hissing sound.


3) Liver Bird connection

According to our records, our quills were donated to the Museum in 2007 from an animal that lived at the Animaline Rescue Centre in Sussex. With a bit of investigative digging it turns out that the Animaline Centre (which closed in 2008) was owned by TV writer Carla Lane. Carla Lane is probably best known for writing some of best-received sitcoms of the 1970’s and 1980’s such as the Liver Birds and Bread.  Lane founded Animaline in 1993 in the grounds of her Sussex manor house and housed thousands of rescue animals, presumably including the porcupine that was the former owner of the quills. Also donated at the same time were an ostrich and an emu egg.

4). Porcupettes

Newborn porcupines or ‘porcupettes’ are born with quills that are soft and bendable that gradually harden in the first few days after their birth.. Warning, cuteness right here.


Dean Veall is Learning and Access Officer at the Grant Musuem of Zoology

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