Cape- able of Big Things

Many species of animals have defense mechanisms to ward off predators. To name a few – some have sharp claws or teeth, or hard external shells to hide in, some play dead and emit foul odors, and others simply use camouflage or mimicry to confuse a predator. And then there is another unique method used in *hairy* situations by the rodent species belonging to the Hystricidae family: quills.

Porcupines are widely known for their quills, which are made of keratin, and often have barbs at the end of them. When threatened, the porcupine will first rattle some of these quills as a warning, then erect the quills to appear large and threatening, and if that doesn’t scare the threat away, the porcupine will run backward toward the threat and shed the barbed quills into the predator. Contrary to common belief, porcupines cannot eject or shoot their quills, but the quills can get stuck into the victim, often causing swelling and even infection. After an encounter, the lost quills will grow back.

The largest porcupine species in Africa, and the focus of this month’s featured species blog, is the Cape porcupine. This nocturnal species is native to hilly, rocky habitats in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and even Italy and can be identified by its black body with black and white striped quills. These porcu-fine animals are considered “old world” porcupines instead of “new world” and there is an explanation of the difference between the two. Old world porcupine species are solely terrestrial, meaning they live on the ground and often in dens, while new world porcupines have evolved to climb trees, such as another species found at the Virginia Zoo – the prehensile tail porcupine.

Apart from being predated, there are no threats to the conservation of Cape porcupines. Instead, this species has benefited from agricultural development and their destructive feeding habitats have actually led to them being considered as a problem in some farming areas. Cape porcupines are herbivorous and their diet consists primarily of root vegetables, bulbs, tubers and bark. Their incisor teeth grow throughout their entire lives, so these porcupines are always chewing and gnawing to file the teeth down and keep them sharp.

Cape porcupines are typically solitary, but can be found in small family groups. After a three month gestation period, one to four porcupettes are born, and they already have quills! The quills are soft at birth but harden quickly. A porcupette is fully grown after a year and individuals of this species can live up to 15 years in the wild and 20 years under human care.

There are currently three Cape porcupines at the Virginia Zoo. In the ZooFarm, Wilma lives in the exhibit adjacent to the blue barn. Wilma was born on April 25, 2015 at the Brights Zoo in Tennessee and arrived at the Zoo when she was one year old. Wilma spends her days napping (she is nocturnal after all), but often enjoys enrichment left out by her Keepers. She loves to tear items apart , such as paper and cardboard boxes, and chew on branches and logs. Keepers also say Wilma frequently likes to run around her exhibit with her quills out when she is excited, which Keepers have coined as the “zoomies”.

Flapjack currently lives behind-the-scenes and was born on July 25, 2015 at the Mesker Park Zoo in Indiana. Flapjack earned his name from the fact that Cape porcupines’ breath smells like maple syrup. He arrived at the Zoo one year later and was paired with Wilma. Flapjack enjoys digging, especially in sand and leaves, but also enjoys chewing on browse such as mimosa and mulberry branches. Keepers have voluntarily trained Flapjack to ring a bell, which results in a reward of food. He often rings the bell even when he is not asked, in the hopes of receiving food.

Chompers is the third Cape porcupine at the Zoo. Born to parents Wilma and Flapjack on April 11, 2017, Chompers also has a younger sister named Stompers, who has already left the Zoo due to a breeding recommendation. Chompers appears to enjoy many things, from chewing and digging, to piling substrate into one large mound and napping on top of it as if he is the “king of the world”. Chompers also likes water, and often runs around under a sprinkler with his quills out and then will typically jump into his pool while playing in the water. He enjoys being scratched during voluntary training sessions, but only by Keepers he is very familiar with. While receiving scratches, his Keepers say Chompers likes to use his rough tongue to lick their arms or legs!

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