The twittering of birds and the chirping of frogs make it difficult to hear much else in the rainforests of Panama, but keep your ears tuned for a soft, snuffling, chortling sound from among the lower branches. Follow the sound to a small creature bumbling around in the trees above. He might grunt, whine, or squeak if you get too close – so listen up, because there’s good reason to keep your distance while observing Rothschild’s porcupine, the smallest porcupine in the world and one of Panama’s incredible native species. Though Panamanians know him as gato de espina, or “spiny cat,” he’s much smaller than a typical housecat, weighing in at roughly two pounds. He’d easily fit in the palm of your hand, but it wouldn’t feel good!
Rothschild’s porcupine belongs to the New World family of porcupines, or Erethizontidae. All New World porcupines protect themselves using keratinous spines that are loosely attached to the porcupine’s skin, ready to pierce the flesh of predators. Erethizontidae feature quills tipped with sharp, backwards-pointing barbs. Once one of these spines lodges in the skin of the porcupine’s molester, it detaches from the porcupine and works its way deep into the offender’s flesh. The characteristic barbs on New World porcupine spines make removal difficult and painful.
Perhaps because he comes equipped with a unique defense against predators, this little guy is not endangered. Conservation efforts in Panama help to preserve the environments that support his natural habitat. Unfortunately, many cousins of Rothschild’s porcupine appear on the endangered species list. For example, Brazil’s thin-spined porcupine is an endangered species, so rarely seen that it was thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1986.
The Rothschild porcupine is alive and well in its habitat of the wild Panamanian rainforests. These creatures behave differently from most other small rodents, who seem excessively skittish in comparison to the laid-back Rothschild porcupine. He exudes a casual confidence, afforded by his spiny armor. Lounging at leisure in the lower branches of trees, eating flowers, leaves and tree bark, these porcupines emit cheerful snuffles and snorts from the trees of their jungle home.
But if a large predator such as a leopard, margay, or owl decides to risk becoming a pincushion, then Rothschild’s porcupine becomes highly vocal. Sensing an attack, he’ll whistle, grunt, and emit high-pitched screeching sounds. He’s not totally invulnerable to predators, as his soft underbelly has no protective spines. In general, however, his defense mechanism will keep experienced predators away, and he’s free to behave like the roly-poly little quill-ball he is.
The Rothschild porcupine breeds once a year. Expectant females shelter themselves in underground burrows, giving birth to litters between one and four babies. Mom and Dad porcupines both participate in childrearing. Families of porcupines are frequently observed socializing and grazing communally. Isla Palenque is a natural home to Rothschild’s porcupine, and these unique creatures will continue to enjoy the island’s protected habitat thanks to the low-impact, sustainable development on the island.
What’s in a Name?
There’s an interesting backstory to how the Rothschild’s porcupine got his name. Lionel Walter Rothschild was an early-20th-century zoologist and explorer from Great Britain. In 1902 Rothschild first identified and documented this species of porcupine, discovered on an island off the coast of Panama’s Chiriqui province (Isla Palenque, perhaps?). The work of this renowned zoologist has led to the identification of Rothschild’s giraffe, Rothschild’s cuscus, and the Rothschild rock wallaby. Yes, he liked his last name — in fact, over 200 species bear it. Maybe we’ll find it etched into an ancient island tree one day. What we won’t do is travel around Isla Palenque Rothschild-style — in a zebra carriage. Rothschild was an eccentric zoologist and a true explorer with a fascinating career; surely we’ll encounter him again while studying the species of Panama.