He's cute, he's spiky, and as soon as I show him to a classroom of elementary students they all say, "Oh, it's a porcupine!"
Even though that is the most popular response, this particular animal is actually an African hedgehog. Porcupines and hedgehogs both have quills on their bodies, but that is where the similarities end. The porcupine is really a large rodent that only eats plants while the hedgehog prefers insects, classifying it as an insectivore. Despite the confusion about its classification, the hedgehog is a wonderful example of an animal that has developed some amazing adaptations to help it to survive.
The most obvious adaptation, of course, is the thousands of spines that cover its entire back. These spines are short, stiff, hollow and very pointy. Just like our hair can stand on end when we are cold, hedgehogs can make their spines stand up in all directions when they are threatened. If an animal (or human) were to touch the spines, the sensation would be similar to being poked by a cactus or needle. While the quills will not draw blood or get stuck in the skin, they are unpleasant enough to deter even the most curious of animals, creating a wonderful protective coat for the hedgehog. Even lions have been known to fail in their attempts to eat a hedgehog.
It is a common misconception that hedgehogs and porcupines can throw the quills off of their bodies. The spines of both animals are really just modified hairs. We cannot throw the hairs off of our heads, but occasionally they do fall out on their own. The same is true for hedgehogs and porcupines as well.
Porcupine quills have tiny barbs on their tips (similar to a barbed fishing hook) causing them to imbed themselves in the skin of anything that gets too close. This barb also prevents the quill from being pulled out once it is stuck. The quills also are designed to easily break away from the body of the porcupine, fooling people into thinking that they are being thrown from the animal's back. Hedgehog quills do not have barbs on the tip, so they do not get stuck in the skin when touched.
The spines on the hedgehog provide protection for everything except its stomach, which is completely spine-free and covered in soft fur. The hedgehog, however, has developed a way to solve his vulnerable belly problem. They have a special muscle on their stomach that stretches from their head to their tail. When this muscle is contracted, they are able to curl into a tight ball, tucking their head, feet and soft stomach inside. As they curl up, the spines on their back become erect and point in different directions, creating a tight little ball of hedgehog spikes.
Unlike the popular video game character Sonic the Hedgehog, real hedgehogs cannot roll on their own when they are curled up. Instead, they will stay tightly curled and make a distinctive hissing noise until the threat has passed.
Hedgehogs have relatively poor eyesight but wonderful senses of hearing and smell. They use these senses to help them find their favorite foods: worms, beetles, snails, slugs and other invertebrates (animals without a backbone) that come out at nighttime.
They also perform a very interesting ritual called "self-anointing." This is when the hedgehog produces foamy saliva and spreads it all over its body in response to a strong, unfamiliar smell. Scientists still are not sure why hedgehogs self-anoint, but think it could be used in courtship, as a way to clean the spikes, or even as a natural bug repellent.
Despite its cute appearance, the hedgehog does not make a good pet. These animals primarily are nocturnal, so they would be awake at night and sleep most of the day. Also, since they are insectivores, they require a special diet in order to get all the nutrition they need. Lastly, the hedgehog is not a cuddly animal since the spines require a person to wear gloves while handling it.
Hedgehogs are fascinating and adorable little animals with unique adaptations that help them to survive. Lee Richardson Zoo is home to two hedgehog brothers that are housed in the Finnup Center for Conservation Education. Although they are not on display for the general public, they can be seen in many of our educational programs. Our hedgehogs play an important role as animal ambassadors, educating school children in southwest Kansas and across the United States about adaptations.
However, the hedgehog is not the only animal at our zoo that has adaptations. Every single animal here has numerous adaptations to help it thrive in its natural environment. I challenge you to come to the zoo and discover the different animal adaptations for yourself. You might be amazed at what you find.
Visit our award-winning Web site at www.garden-city.org/zoo.