Ask a prof: Is it weird to see a porcupine on campus?

Last week, photos of a porcupine behind Pembina Hall were posted on the Overheard at the University of Alberta Facebook group. The Gateway sat down with John Acorn, an Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Sciences lecturer and host of the TV show Acorn, the Nature Nut, to chat about porcupines and whether it’s weird to see them around campus.

The Gateway: Why would the porcupine be behind Pembina Hall?

Acorn: Porcupines have been natural animals in this part of the world for a long time. They are found more or less around Canada. Lots of porcupines live in the river valley. They are big spectacular animals that are normal to see here in Alberta.

Do you think the porcupine just came up from the river valley?

Probably. In the summertime they feed on a variety of plants, leaves, and twigs. They love apples, oh good grief. In the winter time they mostly feed on bark, so you’ll see them up in trees chewing on the bark of particular trees. Porcupines are very fussy about the tree that they will feed on, they will wander a long ways past hundreds of poplar trees before finding the right one.

There are many things they like to chew on other than trees. They love chewing on rubber;  they’ve chewed on my parents rubber sprinkler attachment. Sometimes porcupines chew on people’s brake lines and plywood. My parents had a bird feeder, and they didn’t just eat all the seeds in the bird feeder, they ate the bird feeder! They have some pretty psycho dining preferences.

They can climb?

Oh yes! They are very good climbers. Most of the time when I see a porcupine out on the trail someplace, I’ll notice a big blob up in the tree, and it’s a porcupine. It’s actually less common to see them on the ground. They climb like a little ape. They have really nice little paddy footprints. Often times the soles of the feet are very bumpy for grabbing trees, a really wonderful texture.

Are there any misconceptions we may have about porcupines?

What’s special about porcupines is they have some of their hair modified to form quills. Their quills are hidden in the back of its fur, and they’re serious quills, they’re long, sharp, and barbed at the tip. So when they go into your flesh they are very hard to pull out. In terms of misconceptions some people think porcupines will shoot their quills at you, which they can’t do. Porcupines are very passive, but if you attack them you will get quilled.

Porcupine mating is a subject many people ask about. They just press all their quills down as tight as possible so they don’t poke each other.

There are also porcupines in the prairies and grasslands, like southern Alberta where there are very few trees. They just find other things to eat. Those porcupines are sort of blonde and light-coloured. Around here they’re darker-coloured porcupines.