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11 Prickly Facts about Porcupines

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Porcupines might be considered a prickly bunch, but they're pretty cute once you learn more about them.

1. The origin of "porcupine" can be traced back to Old English and French words.

The word porcupine is a derivative of the Middle French word porc d’espine, meaning “thorny pig.” Middle English variants include "porcupyne" and "porcapyne."

2. Porcupines are the third largest rodents in the world, and the second largest in North America.

That's right behind the second-place beaver, and the first-place capybara. 

3.  Porcupines cannot throw their quills, as was previously thought.

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When a porcupine feels threatened, it tenses up and attacks predators with the swat of its tail, embedding quills into their skin. Only on occasion will loose quills fall out before it strikes, creating the illusion that they're being shot out.

4. A porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills on its body.

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A typical porcupine has soft hair mixed with quills, which grow from its back, sides, and tail.

5. There are two different types of porcupines.

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Old World porcupines live in Southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. New World porcupines are indigenous to North America and Northern South America.

6. Old World porcupines may not be good climbers, but they are excellent swimmers.

Michelle Bender, Flickr //CC BY NC-ND-2.0

New World porcupines, on the other hand, are capable of clinging to trees with their tails and catching surrounding branches if they fall.

7. They are nocturnal herbivores.

Porcupines are primarily creatures of the night that rest in hollow logs, trees, and crevices during the day, and later come out to enjoy feasts of tree bark, grass, twigs, stems, berries, and the like.

8. Their quills are pre-medicated.

largestartist, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Each quill has a topical antibiotic, so a porcupine attack will not necessarily lead to an infection. This is, however, a defense mechanism to prevent accidental self-quilling.

9. Baby porcupines have soft quills at birth, which harden within a few days.

Chiot's Run, Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

When they grow accustomed to fending for themselves, baby porcupines leave their mothers—approximately 6 months after they're born.

10. Porcupine quills have overlapping barbs at the tips, making them hard to remove.

KaraStenberg, Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

Each quill boasts between 700 and 800 barbs along its tip.

11. The porcupine mating ritual involves a vicious battle—and urination on the female.

Marie Hale, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A typical mating ritual consists of two males fighting over a single female. The males are careful not to injure themselves during the fight, and the winner territorially urinates on the female so that she knows to move her tail aside for safe, quill-free mating.

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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