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Porcupine Quills Can Kill

Researchers in Italy watched porcupines corner a dog and stab it to death

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Porcupines can be vicious killers. But not this one. This one is adorable. Photo: Eric Carlson

Remember that scene in Homeward Bound when Chance, the lovable rascal of a pooch, got in a tussle with a porcupine? “Ah! He bit me with his butt!” said Chance, his face full of quills. As it turns out, Chance could have had it much, much worse. According to new research, porcupine quills aren’t just a painful deterrent, they’re deadly daggers that porcupines are not afraid to use to kill.

In a new study by Emiliano Mori and colleagues, the team recorded, for the first time, porcupines using their quills to stab and kill foxes, badgers and dogs. Science magazine:

They identified four defenses that the animals employed, in order of increasing aggression: quill erection, tail rattling, stamping and growling, and backwards or sideways attacks. The porcupines never used the latter two in one-on-one encounters, but rather as last resorts when an individual was outnumbered, or if multiple porcupines were present and more likely to inflict serious damage. In one such case, two porcupines ran backwards, forcing a dog into their den, where they fatally impaled it with their quills.

It should not be surprising that spines evolved for defense can do their job; it is a reminder to not take any creature’s anger too lightly. Piss porcupines off enough, and they’ve got the tools to get you back.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Could Porcupine Quills Help Us Design the Next Hypodermic Needle?

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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