All the Small Things: In pursuit of the porcupine

All the Small Things: In pursuit of the porcupine

Headlamps beaming, we started up the trail towards Devil’s Peak; not in pursuit of a porcupine, but of an early morning cup of coffee and a rusk with a view. As we graduated from the steep zigzags onto the contour path (a welcome relief for our sleepy lungs), some movement ahead of us drew our attention. Two dark, stocky bundles were bumbling along the path, crashing through the undergrowth as they gathered speed. Quickening our pace, we were able to round the corner and catch a brief glimpse of the perpetrators: our first porcupine pair on Table Mountain.

As quickly as they had arrived, they disappeared. But dawn or dusk expeditions on the mountain have since been loaded with eager anticipation for another possible sighting.

While you might not have seen the elusive Cape Porcupine, you may have come across some incriminating evidence that gives it away: a hole burrowed under a bent fence, bulbs or tubers uprooted from the soil, a ring-barked shrub, and the most obvious, a couple of quills strewn across the path.

The Cape Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) is nocturnal, making it a rare and lucky sighting for Table Mountain explorers. It is Southern Africa’s largest rodent, measuring 60-100cm from head to tail, and weighing 10-24 kg’s.1 One can’t help but be surprised at the stealth and secrecy of an animal with such short legs and stocky stature!

Porcupines are strange and remarkable mammals, though one easily takes their peculiar features for granted (perhaps their recurring silhouette in children’s books and documentaries is ‘to blame’). Their sturdy, hamster-like bodies are covered in course black or brown hair, and a layer of long spines (about 5cm) interspersed with black-and-white striped quills (roughly 3cm). The spines on their tails are hollow, creating a rattling sound to ward off predators, and the quills constitute a mean suit of armour.

Contrary to popular belief, porcupines don’t shoot or propel their quills. When threatened, they will erect and rattle their quills (think spiky, monochrome peacock), before advancing backwards on their enemy, piercing their quills into the unfortunate target, and leaving the quills behind.2

When it comes to their own kind, porcupines are ‘the family type’. They are monogamous, and they mate for life (which could be 10-15 years in the wild, and up to 20 years in captivity), bearing litters of between 2 and 4 young per year.3

Keep an eye out for these peculiar mammals as they bumble across the mountain and weave secretly through our gardens. When their rootling leads to a few gardening headaches (which it will), remember just how remarkably lucky we are to live on the doorstep of a National Park.



  1. Cape porcupine [Internet]. 2017 [cited 6 April 2017]. Available from:
  1. Gorrie M. Table Mountain’s night crawler – Table Mountain Aerial Cableway | Official Website [Internet]. 2017 [cited 6 April 2017]. Available from:
  1. Cape Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) | SANBI [Internet]. 2017 [cited 6 April 2017]. Available from:


© Hans Hillewaert /via Wikimedia Commons

Kate Black

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