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the web of life in southern Africa

Hystrix africaeaustralis (Cape porcupine)

porcupine, South African porcupine [English]; ystervark, Kaapse ystervark [Afrikaans]; Süd-Afrika Stachelschwein [German]; porc-épique sud-Africain [French]; nnungu [Swahili];  ingungubane, inungu [isiZulu] [siSwati]; noko [Sepedi] [Sesotho] [Setswana]; nungu [Xitsonga] [Tshivenda]; sinuku [Lozi]; unungu [Yei]; !Noab [Nama] [Damara]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Euarchontaglires > Glires > Rodentia (rodents) > Hystricognathi > Family: Hystricidae (porcupines)

Hystrix africaeaustralis (Cape porcupine) Hystrix africaeaustralis (Cape porcupine)

Hystrix africaeaustralis (Cape porcupine), Rooipoort Nature Reserve, South Africa. [photos Trevor Hardaker ©]


The porcupine is the largest rodent in southern Africa. It has a distinctive appearance with its protective body covering of long rigid quills and flexible spines, banded in black and white. A crest of erectile long coarse hairs runs from the top of the head along the neck to the shoulder. The crest is raised with the quills when the animal is alarmed or angry. The head and snout are broad, with small rounded ears and small eyes. The legs are short and stoutly built, with heavily clawed feet. The short tail is surrounded by a number of short, hollow and open-ended quills. These produce a characteristic rattling when the tail is shaken, serving as a warning.


Body length 75 - 100 cm; weight range 10 - 24 kg

Dental formula

I C P M = 20

Distribution and habitat

Widely distributed in South Africa, preferring woodlands, savannas, grassland and semi-desert.

General behaviour

Porcupines live in extended family groups including both parents and their young of several years. Each group has a distinct territory. As they are active at night, they require shelter during the day and a family group may occupy a burrow system. They also use crevices in rocks, in caves and abandoned aardvark holes which they modify by further digging. Well-used porcupine shelters often have an accumulation of gnawed bones in the immediate vicinity. It is thought that gnawing bones helps to sharpen the large chisel-like incisors and supplement their diet with minerals.

When alarmed, porcupines erect their crest and quills, stamp their hind feet and rattle their quills and make a grunting noise. If the threat continues they turn their rump towards it and defend themselves by running either sideways or backwards into the enemy. On contact the quills easily detach, and may penetrate the skin of the threatening animal. It is often believed that porcupines can “shoot” quills backwards but this is not true.


They eat a bulbs, tubers, roots and the bark from trees, as well as some cultivated crops e.g. maize, potatoes and pumpkins. They have also been recorded eating from animal carcasses and gnawing on bones.  


  • Usually one litter is born a year, with an average litter size of 1 -3 young.
  • The gestation period is 93 - 94 days long.
  • The young are well-developed at birth, with short spines and open eyes. They remain in the burrow for the first nine weeks and eat solid food after about 4 weeks. Offspring may remain with the family group for extended periods and females that remain with the family group will not reproduce. Dispersal to a new area is required before they become reproductively active.

Life span

12-15 years


Currently porcupines are not threatened but do come into conflict with crop-producing farmers and gardeners. They benefit from the absence of their natural predators (lion, hyaena, leopards) over most of their range and may also have benefited from the increase in the production of agricultural crops. Porcupines are destroyed by a variety of methods, and are regarded as good eating by indigenous people. More recently porcupine quills have become sort after both as components of ornamental jewellery and décor items. There is concern that the populations will not be able to sustain the pressure of hunting to supply this demand. Local conservation agencies are beginning to try to assess the impact.