A Nose full of Quills


by Jack Ewing

It is surprising how little we know about the Mexican Porcupine (Coendou mexicanus), one of ten species found in the Americas, and the only one in Costa Rica. Being nocturnal, arboreal, and secretive, they are seldom seen. I lived in Hacienda Barú for more than 20 years before I saw one. I was surprised by how small it was compared to one I had seen in the mountains of Colorado as a teenager.

I remember that one being big, slow, and awkward. My dad warned me to stay clear of the quill covered tail. "He'll whack you with those quills, and you'll be sorry". He also told me that it is not true that porcupines can throw their quills. Our porcupines in Costa Ballena are much smaller. They weigh only about 2 kg (4½ lbs), and their tails are long, bare, muscular, and prehensile, curling upward, rather than downward like those of monkeys and kinkajous.

The name porcupine is derived from the words "pork" and "spined". They say that their meat tastes like pork, but I don't know anyone who has eaten one. Biologists believe that they are preyed upon by large cats, and speculate that jaguars and pumas flip the porcupine on its back and open the belly, which is free of quills. If there were quills on the belly, the babies would have a terrible time nursing. Dr. Mike Mooring of the Talamanca Large Mammal Survey assured me that they often find quills in puma scat. He also gave me a photo of a puma with quills stuck in the lower jaw.

puma, barzu reserve

Several sources state that Coendou mexicanus is found everywhere in Costa Rica except the southwestern Pacific zone, which includes the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor, Costa Ballena, and the Osa Peninsula. This information is erroneous. I have talked to old-timers throughout the area. They confirmed that porcupines have been here as long as anyone can remember. Curiously, the predominant memory everyone has is that of a dog with a face full of quills. One lady even remembered a pig with quills all over its nose and lips.



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