Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Porcupines can launch their quills at attackers.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1997]
Origins: That a porcupine can throw its quills at an attacker is a widely-believed bit of animal misinformation. Porcupines bristle up when alarmed, and a small muscle attached to each quill pulls it upright in the fur.
When a porcupine chooses to fight its adversary rather than flee, it quickly jumps at its opponent, often skewering it with those bristled-out quills. This jumping movement is extremely fast and has given rise to the myth that a porcupine launches the barbs from a distance.
The porcupine has an estimated 30,000 quills on its body and is thus not incapacitated even by the loss of several hundred quills during a fight. He's still armed and dangerous.
New quills grow in to replace lost ones. There are no quills on this critter's muzzle, legs, or underside. On the face, the quills are only about a half-inch long, but on the back they may be up to five inches in length.
This same false belief has accrued to the hedgehog, another quill-bearing mammal. Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha contains these lines:
From a hollow tree the HedgehogBarbara "stickler" Mikkelson
With his sleepy eye looked at him,
Shot his shining quills like arrows.
Last updated: 29 June 2007
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