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 grouped 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 North American porcupine, Mexican hairy dwarf porcupine, and the Brazilian porcupine.

There are a few differences between the Old World and New World porcupines:

Get right to the point

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 boldly 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 rump and back. These are used to stab any potential threat. At the base of the tail, crested porcupines have 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, crested porcupines stamp their feet, growl, and grunt.

The quills of a New World porcupine are much smaller 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! The North American porcupine's quills can reach 4 inches (10 centimeters) long.

When threatened, the animal erects quills that jut out in various directions, like a pincushion. The porcupine may stand still in a defensive pose or it may charge the enemy. New World porcupines are also known to lash out at predators by quickly batting at them with their quill-laden tails. During fights, a New World porcupine also chatters its teeth.

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.

The San Diego Zoo has four porcupine species and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has two. Some individuals have been trained as animal ambassadors; they often meet guests up close and make television appearances.

Read about one porcupine’s adventure in New York for the CBS Early Show.

The Malayan porcupine Hystrix brachyura and brown hairy dwarf porcupine Sphiggurus vestitus are vulnerable.

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.