Pop Quiz: How far can a porcupine shoot its quills?
The Answer: Trick Question!
A rumor has been floating around for centuries that porcupines can fling their quills at enemies. The truth is a different story.
Porcupines are solitary, slow-moving animals that largely keep to themselves unless threatened. The quills usually lie flat against the porcupine’s body until they encounter a threat, at which point they “puff up” and erect their quills, swinging their spiny tails until the threat either leaves them alone or gets a sharp whack and a face, hand, or paw full of quills.
Quills are actually stiff, hollow hairs with microscopic, backward-facing barbs at the tip (kind of like tiny fish hooks), so when they come into contact with flesh—human or animal—they get stuck and pull free from the porcupine’s skin.
So where did this rumor come from? One possible explanation is people saw porcupines molting, or shaking off loose quills, and assumed they could “shoot” their quills like projectile weapons!
The best thing to do if you encounter a porcupine is to leave it alone. They are solitary creatures and want nothing to do with you.
However, if you or your pet do come in contact and get quilled, seek immediate medical attention. Porcupine quills absorb water and body heat and expand, working their way deeper into the skin. If you can, snip just the ends off the hollow quills to relieve the build-up of pressure inside, and then seek professional medical care to ensure the quills are removed correctly and completely.
Get info on porcupine behavior, diet, and predators and check out our Quick Guide to Porcupines.
I literally just watched the video where a porcupine threw a quill at somebody and it stuck into his hand.
Porcupines can’t shoot their quills, but… When porcupines are threatened, they lash their tails back and forth. Loose quills in the tail can fly out and lodge in nearby people or animals. Some years ago I passed close to a hidden porcupine. It began to bristle its quills and lash its tail violently. Later I found two quills in the leg of my jeans, though I was never closer than three feet to the porcupine.