Sphiggurus mexicanusMexican hairy dwarf porcupine

Geographic Range

Sphiggurus mexicanus is a Mesoamerican endemic, found from central Mexico (Oaxaca and Yucatan) south to the Isthmus of Panama. Related species are found in South America (S. insidious, S. spinosus, S. villosus). Sphiggurus laenatus, formerly considered a subspecies of S. mexicanus, is sympatric in Panama. Due to taxonomic uncertainties, some studies have listed S. mexicanus or a synonym (Coendou mexicanus) as far south as Brazil and Ecuador. ("Ficha informativa de los humedales de Ramsar (FIR)", 2003; Emmons, 1990; Jimenez and Vargas, 2008; Medellin, 1994; Mertz, 2003; Pino, et al., 2008; "Ficha informativa de los humedales de Ramsar (FIR)", 2003; Emmons, 1990; Jimenez and Vargas, 2008; Medellin, 1994; Mertz, 2003; Pino, et al., 2008)


Sphiggurus mexicanus has traditionally been considered an exclusively arboreal species, relying on forest habitat for all aspects of its life cycle. There have been rare reports of these porcupines actively foraging far from trees. The IUCN suggests that Sphiggurus mexicanus has a broad elevational and geographical range. Habitat is listed as mixed-mountain forest and coniferous forest up to 3,200 m in elevation. This species is also seen at low elevations when sufficient forest habitat is available, and seems to favor dry lowland habitats on a seasonal basis. It is uncommon to rare in wet evergreen forests, but is locally common in most other forest habitats. (Jimenez and Vargas, 2008; Medellin, 1994; Naranjo and Espinoza, 2001; Pino, et al., 2008; Wilson and Reeder, 2005)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 3200 m
    0.00 to 10498.69 ft

Physical Description

Sphiggurus mexicanus is morphologically similar to all other species in the genus Sphiggurus. These are small to medium-sized arboreal porcupines, with movements generally slower than other rodents of similar size. The tail is prehensile and naked distally as an adaptation for better mobility in trees. The dorsal and lateral regions of the body are covered by long brown hair and yellowish hardened quills which are used for defense against predation. Electron microscopy has found that these are actually a unique modification of the cuticle, seen only in New World porcupines (Erethizontidae), Old World porcupines (Hystricidae), and tenrecs (Tenrecidae). These quills develop differently from quills seen in other spiny mammals such as hedgehogs (Erinaceidae) and echidnas (Tachyglossidae). Little sexual dimorphism is seen in this species and young are similar to adults. Body length is between 55 to 80 cm and mass between 1.5 and 2.5 kg. (Chernova, 2002; Fowler and Cubas, 2001; Mertz, 2003)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    1.5 to 2.5 kg
    3.30 to 5.51 lb
  • Range length
    55 to 80 cm
    21.65 to 31.50 in


Little is known about the mating systems of Sphiggurus mexicanus. In other porcupines, females control mating by voluntary movement of posterior quills to permit copulation. Available research on S. mexicanus hints that this species is similar in reproductive behavior to Coendou species. Both sexes use a combination of screams, grunts, squeals, and moans to find mates, but are otherwise silent. Coendou females generally mate immediately post-partum. In Sphiggurus mexicanus, however, it is uncertain how mate selection occurs, though polygynandry is likely. Females likely breed regularly for the duration of their reproductive period. (Fowler and Cubas, 2001; Mertz, 2003; Wilson and Reeder, 2005)

Little is known about the reproductive behavior of Sphiggurus mexicanus. In Coendou species, females reach sexual maturity at approximately 19 months. Gestation is approximately 203 days, with litter sizes of generally a single offspring, and sometimes twins, indicating a high parental investment. Young weigh just 400 g at birth, are precocial, and are capable of climbing immediately. Quills are soft and pliable during birth but harden within 2 to 3 days after birth. Females remain reproductively active for 11 to 12 years. Similarly, Bahia hairy dwarf porcupines (Sphiggurus insidiosus) have 1 precocial young after a gestation period of about 200 days and the young become independent at 8 to 12 weeks after birth. Possible seasonal atrophy of organs has been hypothesized. One study examined the morphology of reproductive organs in road-killed females, finding evidence for atrophy of vaginal and ovarian blood supply in non-breeding females. (Fowler and Cubas, 2001; Machado, et al., 2004; Mertz, 2003; Redford and Eisenberg, 1992)

  • Breeding interval
    Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines breed regularly throughout the year, following post-partum estrous.
  • Breeding season
    Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines breed year round.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2

Little is known about parental investment in Sphiggurus mexicanus. Young are precocial at birth, with high pre-birth maternal resource investment per young. Young are generally between 16 and 60% of maternal body weight. Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines are solitary and males do not help care for their young. In the related species, S. insidiosus, young can walk and climb shortly after birth and are independent at 8 to 12 weeks after birth. (Fowler and Cubas, 2001; Mertz, 2003; Redford and Eisenberg, 1992)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female


Females remain reproductively active for 11 to 12 years and animals have been recorded in captivity surviving for over 15 years. However, little is known about the lifespan of wild individuals. (Mertz, 2003; Pino, et al., 2008)


Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines are relatively docile, slow animals, most often seen foraging in the forest canopy. They are frugivorous and folivorous. They are primarily nocturnal, being most active on dark nights, though they have been recorded foraging during the day as well. They tend to keep their tail coiled around tree branches unless moving. Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines tend to stay high in the canopy while feeding and resting, only moving to ground level to travel to a different area when unable to do so in the canopy. This is perhaps why the majority of specimens have been road kills, when no canopy-based travel was possible. ("Ficha informativa de los humedales de Ramsar (FIR)", 2003; Jimenez and Vargas, 2008; Mertz, 2003; Naranjo and Espinoza, 2001; Pino, et al., 2008; Reid, 1997; "Ficha informativa de los humedales de Ramsar (FIR)", 2003; Jimenez and Vargas, 2008; Mertz, 2003; Naranjo and Espinoza, 2001; Pino, et al., 2008; Reid, 1997)

Home Range

Territoriality and home range size are unknown; however, what little data are available point to a food-based distribution. Where food quality is high, more animals tend to congregate, and territorial displays between males have been recorded. Males seem to tolerate females and young, but will fight other adult males in close proximity. Animals are generally solitary, only forming groups during breeding. Sphiggurus mexicanus has also been observed sleeping in close proximity (a few meters) to owl monkeys (Aotus species). (Jimenez and Vargas, 2008; Lorenzo, et al., 2006; Machado, et al., 2004; Mertz, 2003; Naranjo and Espinoza, 2001; Pino, et al., 2008; Jimenez and Vargas, 2008; Lorenzo, et al., 2006; Machado, et al., 2004; Mertz, 2003; Naranjo and Espinoza, 2001; Pino, et al., 2008)

Communication and Perception

Mexican hairy dwarf porcupines are relatively silent, only vocalizing during mating periods. Screams, grunts, squeals, and moans have been reported during breeding. It is likely that scent plays a role in communication, though no research supports or refutes this. Coendou males have been recorded performing a behavior known as anal dragging, rubbing their posterior along the ground, likely to mark territories with scent, though no observations have been noted for this behavior in Sphiggurus. (Reid, 1997)

Food Habits

Sphiggurus mexicanus is frugivorous and folivorous. Individuals feed on leaves of trees, particularly those of the genera Inga, Cecropia, Ficus, and Brosimum. However, much about the diet is unknown. (Mertz, 2003; Mertz, 2003; Reid, 1997)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • fruit


Sphiggurus mexicanus is well-defended from predation, having quills and being primarily nocturnal. However, it has been recorded as a prey item of ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) and has been observed being preyed on by birds when exposed. Boa constrictors (Boa constrictor) feed on Sphiggurus species, though snakes have died from having apparent S. mexicanus quills lodged in or puncturing the lining of the gut, eventually causing starvation. Similar species (Coendou and Sphiggurus) have been recorded in the diet of many tropical forest felids and canids. (Cherubini, et al., 2003; Mertz, 2003; Pino, et al., 2008; Reid, 1997)

Sphiffurus mexicanus is also hunted extensively by humans in some parts of its range as a source of food and for medicinal purposes. Many animals are killed by traffic. (Reid, 1997)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Sphiggurus mexicanus is a common prey item for a wide variety of Mesoamerican predators. It likely causes plants to produce plant secondary metabolites (PSMs), as does Erethizon dorsatum (North American porcupines). Little is known about parasitology and immunology in this species, nor is much known about competitive pressures. While it is likely that it competes with other generalist canopy herbivores such as spider (Atelidae) and howler monkeys (Alouatta), until more is known about its diet, this remains speculative. (Feldhammer, et al., 2003; Mertz, 2003)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Sphiggurus mexicanus is commonly hunted by humans. Its meat is used for food, and its fat and skin are said to have medicinal value among indigenous peoples. The skin has cultural significance in traditional garb as well and is used in clothing and headdresses. (Mertz, 2003; Pino, et al., 2008; Reid, 1997; Mertz, 2003; Pino, et al., 2008; Reid, 1997)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Farmers and foresters report observing Sphiggurus mexicanus eating crop plants and the leaves and fruits of commercially managed trees. Coffee plantations have reported these porcupines eating coffee beans and they are widely managed as a pest under these conditions. However, the negative commercial effects of this species are significantly less than those of weather and other environmental effects. (Medellin, 1994; Naranjo and Espinoza, 2001)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Sphiggurus mexicanus is common throughout its range and is considered a species of least concern by CITES (Appendix III) and the IUCN Red List (2008). This is likely due to a broad habitat requirements and protection of vast amounts of habitat within its range. This species was first listed in the IUCN Red List in 1996, and updated in 2008. The IUCN and other organizations show the population declining, though not severely enough for listing as a threatened or endangered species. However, due to a dearth of research focusing on this species, its status is in need of assessment. Some organizations, including the Los Tuxtlas Biological Reserve in Veracruz, Mexico, consider the species to be in decline and that more research is needed to assess its abundance. It is listed as one of 31 Mesoamerican endemic mammal species in the reserve, but is one of the most poorly studied.

The single largest threat to this species is habitat loss, though these animals do show some environmental plasticity and can adapt to minor habitat changes. One study found that 59% of mammal species in Mesoamerica (including S. mexicanus) respond negatively to habitat loss and manipulation for forestry practices. (Feldhammer, et al., 2003; Pino, et al., 2008)

The conservation status of this species is also dependent upon the taxonomic uncertainties described below (Other Comments). As the taxonomic relationships of the subspecies and regional populations of this species are better understood, it is likely that the conservation status of certain populations will change. (Wilson and Reeder, 2005)

Other Comments

Taxonomic confusion regarding Sphiggurus mexicanus has led to a wide variety of synonyms, and this species has been placed in six different genera since its initial description in 1792. More recent research has limited the scope of the uncertainty to Coendou and Sphiggurus. The distinction between the two genera is currently poorly understood, and each is commonly referred to as one or the other in the literature. Numerous studies have found that there is some genetic evidence for the recognition of two genera, though research is ongoing. (Mertz, 2003; Pino, et al., 2008; Reid, 1997; Wilson and Reeder, 2005)

It is thought that species chromosomal differences in Sphiggurus has evolved by Robertsonian chromosomal differentiation, while Coendou has not, leading to a high variety of chromosome number within Sphiggurus (range 42-72) not seen in Coendou. (Wilson and Reeder, 2005)

Numerous synonyms have been proposed within the genus Sphiggurus for this species. Two previously described synonyms, S. liebmani and S. yucataniae, are now considered to be subspecies of S. mexicanus. Sphiggurus laenatus, once considered a separate species, then a subspecies, and later simply a local color morph, is a form endemic to Panama, and is now accepted as a distinct species. As new species are described, the status of S. mexicanus is likely to change. The IUCN currently lists ten species under the genus Sphiggurus and six under Coendou. ("Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora: Appendices I, II and III.", 2008; Pino, et al., 2008; Wilson and Reeder, 2005)

As a result of these taxonomic challenges, there is wide variability in the literature. For this account, all species names listed above (except S. laenatus), were considered synonymous.

The IUCN has a detailed map of the distribution of Sphiggurus mexicanus online at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/20629/rangemap (Pino, et al., 2008)


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Micah Miller (author), University of Alaska Fairbanks, Link E. Olson (editor, instructor), University of Alaska Fairbanks.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

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.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease


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.


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


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


an animal that mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

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


active during the night


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.


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.

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


remains in the same area


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


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


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