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Porcupine up a tree. Archive Photo of the Day: <a href="">Judy Andrus Toporcer</a>
Porcupine up a tree. Archive Photo of the Day: Judy Andrus Toporcer

Natural Selections: Porcupines

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Dr. Curt Stager tells co-host Martha Foley why and how porcupines climb trees--and why it can be a dangerous job. Plus, what to do when one lives under (and gnaws on) your porch. Get up close, but not too close, to porcupines.

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Synopsis of this Natural Selections Conversation:

Porcupines are adapted to climb trees in search of food, but they can still make mistakes. According to Dr. Curt Stager, it is not uncommon for porcupines to mess up and fall out of a tree.

Porcupines are less likely to fall in the winter time. “They are usually gnawing on bark, chewing off the outer layer, and then getting at the inner bark. They can use their four legs and squeeze the trunk with the insides of their legs and then they use their tail as a prop, and stick the quills into the trunk a little bit to hold them.”

During the summer they are much more likely to fall. Then they are up in the canopy eating leaves near the end of the tree, “Usually they will nip the twigs off, pulling them in, and strip off the juiciest part of the leaf and drop it. These are called nip twigs and you can see them at the bases of trees,” says Stager.

The author of “The North American Porcupine,” finding a porcupine dead beneath a tree, assumed it had fallen. During autopsy, he found that the head was bruised, but he also found an old fracture on the left side of its hip. The claws on the right side were worn down, showing that it had used the right paw more frequently than the left. These injuries probably led to its fatal fall.

Porcupines can be very destructive of property. Plywood contains sodium and porcupines happen to be sodium deficient, because the plant matter they consume lacks the nutrient. Stager says, “Any place there is salt they will go for it, so just plain old plywood or salt left behind from sweaty hands on an axe handle will attract them.” The author of “The North American Porcupine” found that it was mostly females to blame for damage to structures during the spring season while nursing their young, which creates an increased demand for salt.

A study conducted at a summer camp found that the boy’s cabins were the main target of attack by porcupines. This was due to the large amount of sodium left behind from the boys urinating on the sides of the wooden cabin.

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