Old World porcupine

Old World porcupine

The Old World porcupines, or Hystricidae, are large terrestrial rodents, distinguished by the spiny covering from which they take their name. They range over the south of Europe, most of Africa, India, and the Malay Archipelago as far east as Borneo. Although both the Old World and New World porcupine families belong to the Hystricognathi branch of the vast order Rodentia, they are quite different and are not closely related.


Old World porcupines are stout, heavily-built animals, with blunt rounded heads, fleshy mobile snouts, and coats of thick cylindrical or flattened spines, which form the whole covering of their body, and are not intermingled with ordinary hairs. The habits of most species are strictly terrestrial. They vary in size from the relatively small Brush-tailed Porcupines with body lengths of , and a weight of , to the much larger Crested Porcupines, which are long, discounting the tail, and weigh from .

The various species are typically herbivorous, eating fruit, roots, and bulbs. Some species also gnaw on dry bones, perhaps as a source of calcium. Like other rodents, they have powerful gnawing incisors, and no canine teeth. Their dental formula is:

One or two (or, rarely, three) young are born after a gestation period of between 90 and 112 days, depending on the species. Females typically give birth only once a year, in a grass-lined underground chamber within a burrow system. The young are born more or less fully developed, and the spines, which are initially soft, harden within a few hours of birth. Although they begin to take solid food within two weeks, they are not fully weaned until 13 to 19 weeks after birth. The young remain with the colony until they reach sexual maturity at around two years of age, and share the burrow system with their parents and siblings from other litters. Males, in particular, help defend the colony from intruders, although both sexes are aggressive towards unrelated porcupines.

These rodents are also characterized by the imperfectly rooted cheek-teeth, imperfect clavicles or collar-bones, cleft upper lip, rudimentary first front-toes, smooth soles, six teats arranged on the side of the body, and many cranial characters.


Of the three genera, Hystrix is characterized by the inflated skull, in which the nasal cavity is often considerably larger than the brain-case, and the short tail, tipped with numerous slender-stalked open quills, which make a loud rattling noise whenever the animal moves.

The Crested Porcupine (Hystrix cristata) is a typical representative of the Old World porcupines, and occurs throughout the south of Europe and North and West Africa. It is replaced in South Africa by the Cape Porcupine, H. africaeaustralis, and in India by the Malayan Porcupine (H. leucura).

Besides these large crested species, there are several smaller species without crests in north-east India, and the Malay region from Nepal to Borneo.

The genus Atherurus includes the brush-tailed porcupines which are much smaller animals, with long tails tipped with bundles of flattened spines. Two species are found in the Malay region and one in Central and West Africa. The latter species, the African Brush-tailed Porcupine (Atherurus africanus), is often hunted for its meat.

Trichys, the last genus, contains one species, the Long-tailed Porcupine (Trichys fasciculata) of Borneo. This species is externally very similar to Atherurus, but differing from the members of that genus in many cranial characteristics.

Fossil species are also known from Africa and Eurasia, with one of the oldest being Sivacanthion from the Miocene of Pakistan. However, it was probably not a direct ancestor of modern porcupines.

Species list

The following is a complete list of extant species (Woods and Kilpatrick, 2005) and fossil genera (McKenna and Bell, 1997):

See also


  • McKenna, Malcolm C., and Bell, Susan K. 1997. Classification of Mammals Above the Species Level. Columbia University Press, New York, 631 pp. ISBN 0-231-11013-8
  • Woods, C. A. and C. W. Kilpatrick. 2005. Hystricognathi. Pp 1538-1600 in Mammal Species of the World a Taxonomic and Geographic Reference 3rd ed. D. E. Wilson and D. M. Reeder eds. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.

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