New World porcupines: North, Central, and South America; Old World porcupines: southern Europe, southern and Southeast Asia, and Africa


Forest, rocky or mountainous area, desert, rain forest, and prairie

Worlds apart

Porcupines are a type of rodent found in two main regions of the world, so scientists group them into either Old World or New World porcupines. Old World porcupines live in Europe, Africa, and Asia; some examples are the North African crested porcupine, African brush-tailed porcupine, and Indian crested porcupine. New World porcupines live in North, Central, and South America; some examples are the Canadian porcupine, Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine, and Brazilian porcupine.

Get right to the point

All porcupines are nocturnal and quite adaptable, found in a variety of habitats, as long as there is vegetation. There are a few differences between the Old World and New World species:

Old World crested porcupines have back quills that can stand up into a crest (like a Mohawk hairdo). The crest starts from the top of the head and goes down to the shoulders. They display their weaponry for all to see. Each quill is marked with black and white bands. Some quills can be up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) long. These long, pliable quills act as guard hairs and form a "skirt." When threatened, the skirt can be erected, making the porcupine appear two to three times bigger.

Smaller, rigid quills that are 8 inches (20 centimeters) long are densely packed over the Old World porcupine’s rump and back. These can stab any potential threat. At the base of the tail, the porcupine has blunt, hollow quills that rattle when shaken, serving as a warning to potential predators. If the noise doesn't work, the porcupine may try to charge backward into the predator. When threatened, a crested porcupine stamps its feet, growls, and grunts to scare off the predator.

The quills of New World porcupines are much smaller (about 4 inches or 10 centimeters long) but work just as well. The end of each quill has a small barb (like a fish hook) that snags the flesh, keeping the quill stuck in the enemy's skin. Any animal with a quill lodged in its skin will have a hard time removing it if it doesn't have fingers and thumbs! When threatened, New World porcupines erect quills that jut out in various directions, like a pincushion. The porcupines may stand still in a defensive pose, or they may charge the enemy. New World porcupines are also known to lash out at predators by batting at them with their quill-laden tails. During fights, New World porcupines also chatter their teeth to sound fierce.

Porcupines may look awkward on land, but they are good swimmers.
The Latin translation of porcupine is “porcus,” meaning pig, and “spina,” meaning thorn.
Porcupines tend to grunt when foraging for food.
The North American porcupine has over 30,000 quills!
New World porcupines are also known as tree porcupines.
A family of porcupines is called a prickle—really!
Porcupine quills may be as dense as 150 quills per square inch (6.4 square centimeters).
A greasy coating on porcupine quills contains antibiotics, possibly to protect the animal from infection if it is accidentally pricked by its own quills.

We have had porcupines in our collection since our earliest days, and quite a variety, too! Currently, the San Diego Zoo has an exhibit of Indian crested porcupines along Park Way. A Brazilian tree porcupine, Canadian porcupine, and southern crested porcupine live in the Children’s Zoo. Some of these porcupines have been trained as animal ambassadors; they often meet guests up close and make television appearances.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park also has a southern crested porcupine that serves as an animal ambassador and Canadian porcupines, which are currently off exhibit.

Porcupines have been exterminated in populated parts of Africa because they eat root crops. People also collect quills for ornaments. The thin-spined porcupine Chaetomys subspinosus is listed as vulnerable, losing its habitat due to cocoa plantations in northeastern Brazil. The Phillipine porcupine Hystrix pumila is also vulnerable, due to the rapid loss of its forest habitat and the pet trade. Both species are also hunted as food.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.