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The common Old World crested porcupine (hystrix cristata), the same species present in northern Africa as far south
as Ethiopia, is rare but not extinct in Sicily. What is amazing is the fact
that it survives at all, the island's ecosystem having been largely compromised
in the last century or so, and has been sighted in unlikely places like
the Favorita Park (formerly a royal hunting ground) outside Palermo.
It is dark brown, grey and black, growing to a length of 70 centimeters
and weighing as much as 15 kilograms. It should not be confused with the
hedgehog, a superficially similar but smaller rodent. Porcupines
are night creatures; daytime sightings are rare. they enjoy bushy areas,
and in Sicily prefer terrain lower than one thousand meters high, where
it rarely snows.
Porcupines (istice is the Italian word) appear to have few natural
enemies (if man is excluded). The porcupine does not shoot its quills (spines)
as folklore suggests. When menaced, it often chooses to flee, though porcupines
can bite or claw adversaries, and may even charge backward, attempting to
stab with their quills. The porcupine is generally considered the largest
rodent present in Italy, where hares are also seen.
The crested porcupine lives in holes it burrows. It rarely attempts to
climb trees but can swim. In winter, which is brief and not very cold in
the parts of Sicily inhabited by porcupines, these creatures remain in their
holes but do not actually hibernate. They consume bark, tubers, roots, berries
and domestic crops, and have been known to hone their teeth by gnawing on bones.
Old World porcupines live up to fifteen years. Since 1974, they are protected
by Italian law. There is a theory that the crested porcupine was introduced
into Europe by the Romans, and it is sometimes called the "North African"
crested porcupine. In Sicily, however, a number of mammals of African
origin are present, and appear to occur naturally. Porcupines live in pairs
and females bear one litter of one or two young per year. Considered solitary creatures, they are occasionally seen in families or pairs.
About the Author: Vincenzo Mormino has written about wildlife and nature for Best of Sicily and hard-copy publications.