Atherurus africanusAfrican brush-tailed porcupine

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Geographic Range

Atherurus africanus is found only in Africa in the countries of Gambia, western Kenya, and southern Zaire.

Habitat

The African brush-tailed porcupine spends its days hidden in caves, crevices, or fallen trees. They prefer naturally occuring caves and do not usually burrow out their own. A. africanus can be found in forests, river forests, and island forests, at elevations of up to 7400 ft.

Physical Description

African brush-tailed porcupines are some of the largest rodents in Africa, having a body length of 36.5 to 60 cm and a tail length of 10 to 26 cm. The body is long but the legs are very short and wide. The feet are webbed and contain five digits with claws. These animals vary in color from black to dark brown on the dorsal side and white to light brown on the ventral. On each side of the jaw, five teeth are present: one incisor, one premolar, and three molars. The body of A. africanus is covered with several types of protective spine. The softest ones appear on the head, neck, and stomach. Flattened stiletto types spines are found on the edges of the back with more flexible bristle type spines in the mid-region. This species also has a yellowish brush tail with platelet type bristles and a few very thick, long spines on the hind back.

  • Range mass
    1 to 4 kg
    2.20 to 8.81 lb
  • Average mass
    2.9 kg
    6.39 lb
  • Range length
    36.5 to 60 cm
    14.37 to 23.62 in

Reproduction

The African brush-tailed porcupine forms pair bonds before mating. This is necessary because the female acts out in aggression against a male with whom she is not familiar, raising her spikes and getting in the way of the mating process. There is no clearly defined breeding period, and up to two litters are possible each year. Females normally give birth to one, sometimes two, young per liter. They have a very long gestation period, ranging from 100-110 days, after which they give birth to well-developed (precocial) young. At birth, the eyes are open, the teeth are already present, and hair (but not spines) covers the body. Despite the long gestation period, the young are born very small, only three percent of the mother's body weight. Because of their small size, both parents invest a lot of energy raising the young. Mothers nurse nearly constantly for the first two months after birth; this is possible because the teats are located laterally on the chest. These animals reach sexually maturity at two years.

Porcupines live in very social groups so the young typically remain with their parents throughout their lives. A. africanus has been documented to live up to 23 years of age.

  • Key Reproductive Features
  • gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate)
  • sexual
  • Average number of offspring
    1.5
    AnAge
  • Average gestation period
    106 days
    AnAge

Lifespan/Longevity

Behavior

Atherurus africanus is strictly nocturnal, coming out to roam only when it is completely dark. In fact, these animals will not leave their den on nights when the moon is too bright. Adults usually live in families, generally around 6-8 members, which include a mating pair and their offspring from multiple litters. These families share runs, territories, feeding and latrine areas. Groups of families, up to 20 individuals, often share resources and live in close proximity to each other. These animals are mainly terrestrial but are also good at climbing and swimming. Most of their known predators, such as carnivoires, owls, snakes, and humans, tend to be scared away by the presence of their spikes. When agitated, porcupines can raise their spines, giving the appearance of a body twice its actual size; they also rattle the tails and stomp their feet in order to further threaten their enemies. If the predator comes close enough, A. africanus aligns itself so its rear faces the predator. It suddenly makes a backward attack, causing the spines to become embedded in the enemy. The spines are released from the procupine's back and remain stuck in the enemy.

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Atherurus africanus is mostly herbivorous but they occasionally have been observed feeding on carcasses. Their diet consists primarily of bark, roots, leaves, bulbs, fruits, and nodules. These porcupines tend to be very nervous and quick moving while hunting for food, which they do alone.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

African brush-tailed porcupines have a keen sense of smell, which they use in order to locate and uproot buried nodules and bulbs. Instead of causing damage to these forms of vegetation, the porcupine's uprooting actually increases the density of vegetation in their areas of forage. The reasoning behind this lies in the observation that the small holes dug out by the animals actually serve as reservoirs for running water, seeds, and soil.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Atherurus africanus has been known to feed on cultivated crops. They also feed on the bark and the fleshy tissues of trees, a practice that is commonly refered to as "ringing". This habit can be devestating for trees and often causes death. A. africanus is also a carrier of Plasmodium atheruri, a malaria parasite.

Conservation Status

These animals do not seem to be decreasing in numbers or threatened with extinction. This may be due in part to their ability to leave their habitat and relocate to a new one if resources become permanently scarce.

Contributors

Jennifer Ellis (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

rainforest

rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

References

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, v. 2. Baltimore: The John's Hopkins University Press.

Parker, S. 1990. Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals, v. 3. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.