Humans may be Responsible for the Extirpation of Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) from the Southeast

Porcupines lived in southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  (See: Remains of this species dating to that era have been found in Florida and South Carolina.  Presently, the porcupine is absent from this region.  The porcupine’s extirpation from this region is a relatively recent occurrence–skeletal remains of this species dating to younger than 9000 years BP have been found at numerous localities in the south.

Modern range map of the Porcupine.  During the Pleistocene it also inhabited the southeast as far south as Florida.

Map of North Carolina highlighting Watauga County

Watauga County, North Carolina.  Porcupine skeletal remains have been found in a rockshelter located here.  They date to 7500 BP.  Porcupine skeletal remains even more recent than this have been found in Colbert County, Alabama, and southeastern Tennessee.

Archaeologists from Appalachian State excavated the Charles Church Rock Shelter in Watauga County, North Carolina, and they found the remains of at least 10 porcupines along with stone and ceramic artifacts, burned plant material, burned rocks, and human skeletal material.  The porcupine remains included jaws, cheek bones, and teeth.  Some of these bones had been burned–possible evidence the Indians cooked the porcupine.  Porcupine remains dating from the early to late Holocene (from 9000 BP-1500 BP) have also been found at 6 other southeastern sites including Eastman Shelter and the Tennessee River in Tennessee, Daughtery’s Cave in Virginia, Little Bear Cave and Stanfield-Worley Cave in Colbert County, Alabama, and Russel Cave in Jackson County, Alabama (which borders the Georgia state line).  Evidently, porcupines still occupied the southern Appalachians until at least 1500 years ago.  There is no evidence of permanent human settlement in the higher elevations of the southern Appalachians until the medieval warm period between 900 AD-1300 AD.  Perhaps, not coincidentally, this seems to be when porcupines disappear from the archaeological record in this region.

In  my previous blog entry about southeastern porcupines, I suggested they were unable to survive the hot prolonged summers of the modern day south because of excessive exposure to mosquito-borne disease.  I’ve reconsidered that notion, since I’ve become aware of the porcupine’s Holocene survival in the region.  The  mid-Holocene climate from 6000 BP-4000 BP was hotter and drier than that of the present day, yet porcupines were still extant in southeastern Tennessee and northern Alabama until at least 2000 BP.  Warmer climate alone can not explain the disappearance of the porcupine, a species that ironically originated in the tropics.  Instead, I agree with those who believe human overhunting led to the porcupine’s demise in the south.

I’ve long been convinced humans were responsible for the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, but I didn’t think humans were behind the extirpation of porcupines.  I didn’t realize porcupines, like larger species of mammals, reproduce quite slowly.  Porcupines do not reach sexual maturity until they are 2 years old.  The females are fertile for just 8-12 hours once a year.  Pregnancy lasts for 7 months, then only 1 or 2 young are born.  By contrast, rabbits reach sexual maturity in 2 or 3 months, gestation lasts about 1 month, and they can produce 7 litters a year of up to 11 young each.  This explains how rabbits can withstand human hunting pressure while porcupines can not.  Porcupines have few natural predators because their quills protect them so well.  Only the occasional cougar or fisher learns to flip them on their back, exposing their unprotected belly.  Before man appeared on the scene, porcupines had no need for a rapid reproductive rate.

Audubon’s painting of a porcupine.  I believe this is 1 of his better portraits.  His colleague, John Bachman, claimed porcupines made good pets.  They rub up against a person’s leg, just like a cat.  The quills only stand up when they are threatened.

A major reduction in hemlock forests during the mid-Holocene is an alternative explanation for the porcupine’s disappearance from the region. A pollen study of 2 kettle lakes in Canada showed that 5800  years ago hemlocks declined from 30% of the forest canopy to 5% within a few decades.  Previous researchers believed an insect pest, the hemlock looper (Lambdina fusallaria) was responsible for this decline, but this study implicates the mid-Holocene hot dry climate phase.  Hemlock trees have shallow roots and can’t survive prolonged draughts.  Porcupines like to eat the inner bark of hemlock trees, and a single porcupine can kill as many as 100 hemlock trees in a single winter.  However, I doubt the decline of 1 species of tree is what doomed porcupines in the south.  Pleistocene porcupines lived in Florida and the South Carolina coastal plain where hemlocks were uncommon, even during the Ice Age.  And porcupines survived in the southeast well after the  mid-Holocene decline of the hemlock.  I think we can squarely put the blame on hungry Indians.

Porcupines appear to have been cooked at 2 of the 7 southeastern Holocene sites where their remains have been found, including the Charles Church Rock Shelter and the Tennessee River.  Though not a big enough data base to be statistically valid, this is suggestive.  Reportedly, porcupine flesh tastes like “flabby pork.”  A book entitled Rattlesnake Under Glass provides a recipe for porcupine based on an old Indian method of preparation.  I doubt the author actually tried the recipe, and it sounds like a terrible way to cook any small animal.  The unskinned and uncleaned porcupine was covered with a 2 inch layer of clay and placed on hot coals for 2 hours.  When the clay was baked hard, it was cracked open, and I suppose removal of the clay also removed the quills.  I would never cook any kind of meat without first removing the entrails.  Otherwise, the meat is likely to literally taste like shit.  Leave the porcupines alone, but if faced with starvation and forced to eat 1 individual, I recommend removing the guts before cooking.


Eastlake, Martha

Rattlesnake Under Glass

Simon and Shuster 1965

Haas, Jean; and John McAndrews

“The Summer Draught Related Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis) Decline in Eastern North America 5700-5100 years ago”

Proceedings: Symposium on Sustainable Management of Hemlock Ecosystems in Eastern North America

Whyte, Thomas

“Erethizon dorsatum (American porcupine) Remains from the Charles Church Rock Shelter, Watauga County, North Carolina”

Southeastern Naturalist 9 (4) 2010

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3 Responses to “Humans may be Responsible for the Extirpation of Porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) from the Southeast”

  1. Lamar Says:

    My father and uncle saw one (a porcupine) once in the Talladega Nat’l Forest in east Alabama. Their border collie went after it and got a couple of quills stuck in her. I don’t know how it got there. It was in a really remote area, so there could’ve been a small disjunct population that survived there.

  2. Bob Cooksey Says:

    I saw a porcupine near Johnson City, Texas a few years ago but have never seen one since. I’m a fossil hunter and outdoor guy, so I know what I saw was a porcupine. Maybe they are coming back.

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