drawing illustration of a porcupine maine porcupine

The Surprising Sex Life of Maine Porcupines

Maine porcupines ejaculate urine on females over six feet away, but cannot shoot quills as commonly believed. These are weird creatures that are common here in Maine. Their quills are highly valued in our art and deeply woven into the history of native cultures for thousands of years. History lesson later, let’s dive into the secret sex lives of these prickly devils.

maine porcupine up a red oak long limb
A porcupine in a red oak tree in Bucksport, Maine

As females reach heat they advertise with high pitched screeching and leave sticky vaginal secretions on trees. Surrounding male porcupines franticly vie for the privilege to approach a special lady first to release essential pheromones in a romantic display of a wild golden shower. This pre-copulation shower is strangely fired by ejaculation, not released by normal bladder pressure, allowing them to gloriously shoot like a geyser as far as six and a half feet away.

Unable to resist, she delicately accepts the advances of the dominant male—in her own sweet time. They in no way seem to be in a hurry, often dangerously circling around each other and even taking an hour or longer before mounting.

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Maine porcupine courtship is elaborate, noisy and dominance-hierarchy based. Female porcupines are only looking for a good time for 8-12 hours during a single annual heat. So naturally, it’s a highly competitive process often forcing males to fight for hours to be the first to reach her. The fight to woe her happens only in trees taking the battle for mating rights that much more deadly. Mating is exclusively, and more safely, on the ground.

Males compete with each other using loud vocalizations, violent biting, and each uses his quills as weapons. They vigorously switch their thorny tails in desperate attempt to win that golden ticket. This process of sexual selection promotes increased male size in this species upwards of 30 pounds and 35 inches long.

A few years ago I was hunting in a tree stand and watched two porcupines duking it out cautiously on a tree branch. A smaller one kept creeping toward the narrowing end of a long-dead branch while the much larger porcupine was almost falling with each step. Dead bark crumbled to the ground a good 15-feet down. Spoiler alert, no deer that day.

Luckily, porcupine quills are coated with naturally produced antibiotics to prevent infection if they stick themselves, or each other. Or maybe, they like that kinda thing?

Here is a photo of the tree. They were back inside by the time I was off my stand. This is a year-round den and we call it the porcupine pine.

The pair will mate for several hours until a vaginal plug is formed, which then stops the copulation, and prevents further copulation with other males. This plug is formed by enzymatic action in the semen.

Gestation lasts seven months which is uncommon for small animals, especially rodents. In stark comparison, a hamster takes only 15 days. Porcupettes are nursed for 127 days. They leave their mothers at about five months. Curiously, especially given the single gestation offspring, they are not fully sexually mature until 25 months for females, and 29 for males.

Porcupines are long-lived creatures of the forest that mind their own business. They can live 18 years in the wild. Their longevity is thought to be limited by their teeth. Porcupines over 12 years begin to decrease in size.

The territories of male Maine porcupines overlaps those of several females. The territories of dominant males rarely overlap. Females maintain similar sized territories. Male territory varies with age and social status. Juvenile males settle as permanent residents in their natal area only expanding territory as they mature. Females leave their mother’s territory before reaching maturity.

Longer-lived animals with a single offspring annually require rigorous sexual selection methods that reduce inbreeding for the long term success of the species.

About Porcupine Quills

Porcupine quills are modified, hollow hairs with incredibly sharp, microscopic barbs located only at the tip. Just the tip. The ingeniously barbed quills draw themselves in due to their highly specialized design and can exist in the body for years, in some cases even working themselves back out if they are perpendicular to the skin membrane. They cause serious health conditions if allowed too far into the body where they can reap havoc on internal organs.

Despite rumors, porcupines cannot shoot their quills at predators when frightened. Instead, when facing a threat they turn around, erects their quills and swish their spiny tails. They do not have quills on their face, belly, inner thighs, or bottom of the tail. When a porcupine is threatened they turn their back, raise their quills and make noises. If the threat continues, they swing their tails at the attacker. The erect quills release easily when the fish hook-like barbs lodge in the attacker’s body.

Quills are so strong we unknowingly rubbed against a Maine porcupine with our truck’s tire while driving through tall grass. The next day we found quills in the tires.

Should you find yourself or your pet quilled, twist any imbedded quills while firmly and pulling out toward the way they went in. This should reduce how much the barbed tip catches the skin on its way out. Wild animals lacking our amazing human opposable thumbs with an unfortunate face full of quills is in trouble. Unable to eat or hunt, a lingering death will follow.

Of note, quills also have a large part in the bumbling porcupine’s ability to scale trees. They use the quills to poke the tree for grip while sleeping to prevent themselves from falling out of the tree. From what I understand they do still fall often when climbing out on limbs for succulent tips. I have not witnessed it personally.

Porcupines do not hibernate

In winter porcupines often den in small groups. Den sharing is not necessarily considered part of the mating system of porcupines. They do not hibernate, but are less often seen in winter while hunkered down to conserve energy. During the day they can be found safe from predators high in a tree or snoozing in their dens. Topping off at a whopping two miles per hour it’s no wonder they need quills for protection.

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Most predators avoid porcupines. Fishers are keen enough to tactfully flip them to expose the defenseless underside.

Porcupines are fond of salt and for some reason, and in my personal experience, they enjoy gnawing on and destroying stacked plywood, plastic lawn chairs, dog houses and outhouses. Their love of salt leads them to salted roadsides. That, and having a top speed of 2 mph, leads to a high road kill rate.

In the summer months, Maine porcupines enjoy a variety of flowers, berries, seeds, and leaves. In winter, they subsist on evergreen tips and strip the outer bark of trees to reach the soft nutrient rich layer underneath. Oh, and lawn chairs.

Porcupine quillwork art is completely unique to North America. Seeds and quills were the basis of ornamental embroidery far before the introduction of glass beads. We strive to add more quills to our pieces over the next few months.

We are currently curating a porcupine quill collection of products including little jewelry boxes, earrings, pendants, perpetual calendars, magnet sets and cutting boards. Subscribe to get updates on new products and news on the sidebar. Please consider sharing this post to support our budding women-owned business.

-Mandy W

[12/10/21]

Here is a PDF on porcupines with more detailed information. A little dry though.