Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Sam Smith

I was on my way home the other evening and had just passed through the woods when I found my way blocked by two porcupines in the middle of the road, sitting on their hind legs and embracing each other. I carelessly leapt to the conclusion that this was how porcupines dealt with the peculiar problem posed to reproductive recreation by a plethora of quills surrounding one's target orifice. Perhaps all one needed was a slight readjustment in the location of the respective organs.

Then my mind swept back to an evening when I thought I would explain sex to one of my then little sons using the less provocative example of a non-human. The only problem was, thanks to the book we were reading together at the time, I chose a walrus as my example. No sooner had I started then I realized that I had no idea how walruses had sex and that, frankly, the idea seemed absurd.

But for walruses at least, it was mainly a problem of excessive blubber that appeared to interfere with the enjoyment - not an arsenal of quills situated like a ring of ABMs around the aperture of bliss.

My flashback was interrupted by the porcupines, one of which departed to the weeds at the edge of the road while the other boldly approached my immobile car as if it were going to chastise me for having spoiled the evening. The creature then stopped, turned 180 degrees, and raised its posterior slightly as if to say, "You come any closer, you're going to need a new tire."

I got the message and sat quietly until the porcupine decided it was all right to leave.

Safely at home, I googled for some information on what I had just seen and, sure enough, the ever reliable Cecil Adams of Straight Dope set me straight:

|||| An account of porcupine romance (in North American Porcupine, Uldis Roze, 1989) does begin this way: "Somewhere ahead, a porcupine is screaming." However, it's not what you think. The screaming porcupine is a female letting an ardent male know she's not in the mood. Male porcupines may give vent to the occasional scream as well, but it's from frustration, not pain: the female is only sexually receptive 8-12 hours per year.

Porcupine sex is not the exercise in S&M you might imagine but it does have its kinky aspects. I quote from Roze: 'Perhaps the strangest aspect of the interaction is male urine-hosing of the female. The male approaches on his hind legs and tail, grunting in a low tone. His penis springs erect. He then becomes a urine cannon, squirting high-pressure jets of urine at the female. Everything suggests the urine is fired by ejaculation, not released by normal bladder pressure. . . In less than a minute, a female may be thoroughly wetted from nose to tail."

So much for foreplay. If the female decides now is the time, she hoists up her rump a bit and raises her tail, the underside of which is quill-less, and curves it up over her back, covering the quills thereon and exposing her genitalia. The male then approaches in a gingerly manner from the rear, walking on his hind legs and taking care to touch nothing with his forepaws but the safe part of the tail. . . The act lasts 2-5 minutes and may be repeated several times during the half-day window of opportunity. . .

The real problem for a male porcupine is not getting intimate with the female but surviving the bar fights with his male rivals beforehand. Researcher Roze reports coming upon the scene of an interporcupine slugfest where three males had fought it out for the favors of one female. The ground was littered with nearly 1,500 quills and a few more could be seen in the nose of the apparent victor. ||||

Elsewhere, I learned that the few critical hours of porcupinial reproduction typically occur in November and December, further suggesting that what I had spotted had been convivial but not consummated. Still, even the sight of two porcupines hugging was a cheerful reminder of how many possibilities in this world we haven't even imagined.