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Creature Feature #7 Prickly Pal on the Patio

I've always had a strong affection for porcupines, but they don't really return the favor. In Canada, our dog always encountered them late on a Sunday night, when veterinary services are at a premium. And in Costa Rica I discovered they have bizarre ideas about what is edible.

At first I was thrilled when a porcupine started hanging out under the eaves of my treehouse, El Fenix, in the Finca Bellavista Community. It made its way up the tree that winds through the treehouse, pausing on the patio and dining on a straw rug, with a dessert of guest book (shown on the right), and then leaving a reminder of its visit on the couch. And first there was one, then two. What would they eat next! And why were they eating these unappetizing items? Porcupines, like other mammals that survive mainly on leaves, end up on a high-potassium, low-sodium diet. In order to supplement their diet, they will chew bones or antlers (for sodium and calcium). A rug that has been walked on by numerous sweaty feet, or a book held by sticky fingers, is much easier to chew up and equally nutritious.

Here is a great photo of my visitor, taken by Piotr Naskrecki, owner of Casa Tamandua, another amazing treehouse at Finca Bellavista Community. Piotr hiked over to El Fenix a number of times to set up his camera, but for several days all he captured was a butt view of the animal leaving. It had found another way to get in. But finally it was good enough to come in by descending the tree onto the patio.

Our visitor was a Mexican Porcupine (Coendou mexicanus). Unlike their Canadian cousins, they have prehensile tails (as shown in the upper photo). Interestingly, the gripping surface is on the upper surface of the tail tip, so it curls the tail back, much like some dogs. All other creatures that grip with their tails curl it under and grip with the under surface of the tail tip.

A fifth limb is very handy for an arboreal mammal, allowing it to reach for tender buds and fruit. Normally silent, these porcupines yowl and scream during the breeding season, and young will mew like kittens. Porcupines don't throw their quills, but the quills break off easily and small barbs make them very difficult to remove. Amazingly, the quills have antibiotic properties. Probably not to be nice to an attacker, but to avoid an infection when the porcupine falls out of a tree and stabs itself with its own quills! To find one of these interesting mammals, look at night for their weak, reddish eyeshine in tall trees.

by Fiona A. Reid

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