Weekly Puzzler Answer #111

Years ago I spent 3 weeks traveling around Alaska and on that trip spent some time on a train riding through the Alaskan countryside. The scenery was spectacular and with nothing else to do, I sat glued to the window, trying to memorize every detail. One thing that surprised me was the number of porcupines I saw, ambling through the underbrush. Until then I had never actually seen a porcupine, though they live in places where I have spent time, including forested areas of NY state, the Great Lakes region, Canada and Alaska– basically the northern United States. (All my photos of porcupines are still on slides! so if you want to see a photo of one, check out these on Wikipedia)

owl-7614Last week’s puzzler was a picture of three porcupine quills. If you could reach into the photo and touch the ends of these, you would yelp in discomfort! They are sharp! You may have heard that porcupine quills are barbed, like a fishing hook, but that’s not exactly true.  In the end though it’s just a technicality–the quill tips have 700-800 diminutive scales–a bit like those on a fish,–that overlap so that the raised edges point backward, basically functioning in the same way as  barbs on a hook. Thus, these become embedded in the flesh of the offending animal and make it difficult and very painful to remove.

Amazingly porcupines have 30,000 quills of varying lengths on their bodies, everywhere except their face and underside. The quills are actually specialized hairs and they have about 140 per square inch! Porcupines have the ability to make the quills stand up when they feel threatened. They don’t however, despite popular opinion otherwise, have the power to throw their quills at offending predators. Instead, they lash out with their quill-covered tail, whacking a would-be predator and embedding quills on contact. Wow, imagine the pain of this! If a predator lives through this experience, they will be a bit smarter next time and avoid the quilled beast.

Porcupines are nocturnal herbivores and if you’ve ever spent time in the backcountry where they live, you might know they love salty things, this because their normal diet–things like grasses, clover, buds, aquatic plants, acorns, fruit as well as the inner bark of trees– is deficient in salt. Canoers in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota or in Canada are probably aware that sometimes porcupines have been known to steal an unsuspecting sleeper’s paddle–having been attracted by the sweaty salt on the handle. Same goes for axes, signs or other wooden things that sweaty hands may have touched. I imagine it would be quite puzzling for a paddler to get ready to head off in the morning and not be able to find his paddle–or, to find it in a different shape than when he left it the night before! Has this ever happened to you?

I bet you didn’t know all of that about porcupines! Imagine  the practical application of this… like next time you are at a dinner party and really want to impress the crowd or when you are in the line at the bank and overhear the lady behind you asking about porcupines.

…I hope you’re smiling. And having a great weekend! Click  HERE for the next puzzler

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