Monday, May 17, 2010

Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: The Quills of Prickly Porky

This is the first of many (we hope!) monthly guest blogs from Twig Walkingstick. When not on vacation, Twig lives in and around the Wooster campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. His alter ego is Kurt Knebusch, one of our super-talented writers and editors on campus. Each month, look for Twig to answer a reader questions and some additional interesting facts below. After Twig's post, we will be providing some ideas and suggestions on how to incorporate the info in Twig's column into fun science learning for your students and children.

Q. Dear Twig: Why don’t porcupines stick to things? All those pointy quills and all ...
A. First, the quills (“kwills”) on a porcupine mostly point backward. So when a porcupine climbs up a tree, for example, its quills don’t aim forward and poke into things by mistake. Like branches, tree trunks or the back ends of bears.

Second, besides pointing backward, the quills also usually lie flat, near the body. This cuts down on the chance of accidents too. The quills do stick up when a porky feels threatened. Maybe a wolf or a dog tries to bother it. The stuck-up, stuck-out quills serve as protection. Special muscles around each quill pull tight and make the quill stand up.

Third, if the stuck-up, stuck-out quills do get stuck into something, like the nose of a dog or the snout of a wolf, they dislodge — come loose — from the porky very easily. This lets the porcupine get away — not stay stuck — while the predator deals with a snootful of quills.


P.S. Porcupines can’t throw their quills. Nor shoot them. And the quills aren’t poisonous.

Notes from Twig: 
  • The quills of the North American porcupine are barbed, hollow, modified hairs. A porcupine has about 30,000 of them.
  • Scientists call the muscles that make quills stand up “piloerectors,” while a special quill-holding skin part called the “spool” lets stuck-up, poked-into-something quills pull loose much more easily than relaxed ones do.
  • Sources included “A Facilitated Release Mechanism for Quills of the North American Porcupine” by Uldis Roze, Queens College, New York, in Journal of Mammalogy, 2002; and “Smart Weapons” by Roze in Natural History, 2006.
  • Twig has been vacationing in a place where porcupines live but hasn’t, unfortunately, run into any.

Using this information for education:
Right about now, families across the country are planning their summer vacations or are looking forward the vacations they already have planned. Students may not be in school during the summer, but that doesn't mean they should pass up the opportunity to make learning on their vacation!

If you're planning a trip this summer, whether across the country, camping, to the beach, or even to your local zoo, take the time to learn about the animals and wildlife that are native to the area you'll be visiting. Almost every species has fun facts about its members that will amaze and astound your friends and family.

Learning more about the animal sciences can lead to lots of great educational discussions about habitat, animal adaptations, food chains and more.  So go on and have fun on your vacation this summer, but take the time to teach and learn a little, too! 


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