16 Fun Facts About Hedgehogs

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After cats, hedgehogs might be the internet's favorite animal. But how much do you know about these spiky mammals—other than how cute they look when getting a bath?

1. A GROUP OF HEDGEHOGS IS CALLED AN "ARRAY."

Hedgehogs poking around in the dirt.
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But it doesn't come up much, since hedgehogs are solitary creatures who usually come together only to mate.

2. HEDGEHOGS ARE ILLEGAL IN SOME PARTS OF THE UNITED STATES.

Hedgehog in a bucket with purple beads.
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The hedgie has gained some popularity as a pet—but some cities and states still qualify them as wild animals, which are not allowed to be kept domestically. These include Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and New York City and Washington, D.C. In some areas, like Maine, you need permits in order to own one.

3. A HEDGEHOG HAS BETWEEN 5000 AND 7000 QUILLS.

Hedgehog in a garden.
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Muscles along the animal's back can raise and lower the quills to respond to threatening situations.

4. THERE ARE 17 DIFFERENT SPECIES OF HEDGEHOG, NONE OF WHICH ARE NATIVE TO AMERICA.

Two African hedgehogs.
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Australia also has no indigenous hedgehogs; the hedgies in New Zealand were introduced by humans.

5. HEDGEHOGS RELY ON HEARING AND SMELL BECAUSE THEY HAVE VERY POOR EYESIGHT.

Hedgehog looking for strawberries.
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And even their limited sight is best in the dark as an adaption to their nocturnal lifestyle.

6. UNLIKE PORCUPINE QUILLS, HEDGEHOG SPIKES ARE NOT BARBED, AND THEY'RE NOT POISONOUS.

A close-up of hedgehog quills.
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The inside of the quills are mostly hollow, with a series of complex air chambers that make them light but strong.

7. HEDGEHOGS GOT THEIR NAME FROM THEIR PREFERRED HABITAT—GARDEN HEDGES—AND THE PIG-LIKE GRUNTS THEY MAKE.

Hedgehog playing in purple flowers.
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Their taste for destructive insects makes them a historically welcome presence in English gardens.

8. HEDGEHOGS CAN HIBERNATE, BUT NOT ALL DO.

A hedgehog rolled up in a little ball on some leaves.
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Which makes them one of only three mammals in Great Britain that hibernate (the other two being bats and dormice).

9. HEDGEHOGS ARE LARGELY IMMUNE TO SNAKE VENOM.

Baby hedgehogs nursing on their mother.
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This means that, although their typical diet consists of insects and berries, they can take down a viper in a fight and eat it, too.

10. THE SEA URCHIN IS ACTUALLY NAMED AFTER THE HEDGEHOG.

A baby hedgehog lying in a human hand.
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Before the more adorable name came into use, the spiky mammals were called "urchins" throughout the Middle Ages, and thus inspired the name of the similarly spiky sea creatures. Baby hedgehogs are still called urchins.

11. MEDIEVAL BESTIARIES AND ILLUMINATED TEXTS SHOW HEDGEHOGS GATHERING FOOD WITH THEIR QUILLS.

Hedgehog with two cherries stuck on his quills.
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This is inaccurate. But affinity for the image has persisted.

12. IN THE PRECURSOR TO GROUNDHOG DAY, HEDGEHOGS WERE THE SUPPOSEDLY PORTENTOUS CRITTERS.

Hedgehog curled up on some pine branches.
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But when German settlers got to America and found no hedgehogs, they turned to the similar-enough groundhog for their winter-weather predictions.

13. IN NEW ZEALAND, A SATIRICAL POLITICAL PARTY TRIED TO GET A HEDGEHOG ELECTED TO PARLIAMENT.

Little hedgehog walking in fall leaves.
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The McGillicuddy Serious Party was unsuccessful with their tiny candidate.

14. THERE USED TO BE SUCH A THING AS THE INTERNATIONAL HEDGEHOG OLYMPIC GAMES (IHOG).

Hedgehog swimming in a pool.
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Events included sprints, hurdles, and floor exercises.

15. ONE OF THE LESSER-KNOWN BROTHERS GRIMM FAIRY TALES IS CALLED HANS-MY-HEDGEHOG, ABOUT A BOY WHO IS BORN HALF HEDGEHOG.

Two hedgehogs cuddled in the grass.
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Not your style? Try another Grimm tale, The Hare and The Hedgehog.

16. WHEN EXPOSED TO PUNGENT SMELLS OR TASTES, HEDGEHOGS EXHIBIT A BEHAVIOR CALLED "SELF-ANOINTING," IN WHICH THEY RUB FROTHY SALIVA ON THEIR QUILLS.

Hedgehog sleeping with a leg out.
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The purpose of this behavior is unknown.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

Which of These Animal Poop Facts Are Real and Which Are Total Crap?

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