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The Secret Life of Urban Hedgehogs

Though city-dwelling hedgehogs have adapted to metropolitan life, some need a little help to thrive

(Lindsay Bosslett /Flickr)
smithsonian.com

The world’s most famous hedgehog, Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle was a decidedly rural dweller. But many urban hedgehogs populate the gardens and parks in cities across the British Isles and Europe.

In fact, according to a recent study, many urban areas have higher hedgehog populations than the surrounding countryside. New research presented at a meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology shows the prickly little mammals have actually changed their lifestyle to adapt to life downtown. Researchers at the University of Hamburg tagged 14 hedgehogs with special GPS temperature sensors all around the city, from parks and gardens to busy roadways and quiet side streets as well as hogs in surrounding rural areas.

They then monitored the little animals’ locations and temperatures—which indicate resting states and hibernation—for 10 months. The data shows that the lifestyle of the urban hedgie is much different than its country cousins. “We found that urban hedgehogs had much smaller nightly ranging areas than their rural counterparts—5 hectares verses 50 [12 acres to 123 acres]—and that they adjusted their activity to levels of human disturbance,” lead reseacher Lisa Warnecke says in the press release.

Carrie Arnold at National Geographic writes that urban hedgehogs tend to sleep in private gardens during the day, but after the last round of dog walkers leave Hamburg’s parks around 9 o’clock, the hedgies begin visiting public spaces and by midnight the nocturnal creatures rule the city.

The research also showed that urban hogs followed the same hibernation patterns as their rural counterparts. That was surprising since in the city, the hedgehogs have access to plenty of food scraps and cat food, which the researchers thought might change their hibernation pattern. The finding means homeowners and land managers need to keep hedgehogs in mind when managing vegetation. “Gardens and public parks are very important for city hedgehogs,” Warnecke says in the press release. “They need gardens with natural vegetation and public parks less immaculately pruned, with plenty of natural, bushy areas.”

“This is a really important finding. It helps those of us who are working to save these animals provide better conservation advice,” Hugh Warwick, an ecologist with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society tells Arnold.

While hedgehogs in mainland Europe seem to be doing fine, their numbers in Britain have plummeted, with rural population dropping by half and urban hogs declining by one third since 2000, according to a report by the Hedgehog Preservation Society. The problem is likely caused by habitat destruction from farming and urban development.

At least one town, Ipswich, is hoping to turn things around for its spiny friends. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust recently posted a job opening looking for a Hedgehog Officer for the city of about 180,000 in the southeast of England. According to the posting, they are seeking “an inspirational individual who will be the face of hedgehog conservation in Ipswich. You will use your knowledge of nature conservation and hedgehog ecology to lead an ambitious project seeking to make Ipswich the most hedgehog friendly town in the UK.”

The main duty of the two-year appointment is building a street-by-street network of hedgehog-accessible habitat based on the Preservation Society’s Hedgehog Street initiative. That means convincing gardeners to leave some brush for the animals to sleep in and connecting up some of the city’s green spaces.

Applications are due by July 13.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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