The humble hedgehog, often confused with
the porcupine (to which it is not closely related),
is still found in Sicily, often in surprising places. Native throughout
Africa and Eurasia, the hedgehog is a mammal of the Erinaceidae family.
Those in Sicily are thought to be of the North African variety. Due to its
spines, which rather resemble those of the sea urchin, hedgehogs were sometimes
called "urchins" in medieval times, and in Sicilian the names "riccio"
and "rizzo" have stuck (the Italian is istrice).
In Sicilian heraldry the hedgehog represents a
play on the surnames Arezzo, Riccioli and Riccio, appearing in the coats
of arms of those families.
The hedgehogs found in Sicily are very dark, almost black. Otherwise
they are not much different from those found elsewhere. They are nocturnal
creatures that roll themselves into a ball for protection. In Italy the
hedgehog is a protected species. They live in holes in the woods or bush,
and it is believed that in Sicily their main threat came from wolves and
foxes, both nearly extinct on the island. Vultures,
falcons and hawks may still pose a threat here.
Sicilian hedgehogs are most often found in the Peloritan, Madonie
and Nebrodi mountains, though they also live in
other wooded areas. Unless hit by cars or otherwise killed through unnatural
means, Sicilian hedgehogs usually live seven or eight years. Like mice and
opossums, hedgehogs have a degree of natural immunity to snake venom due
to the protein erinacin in their muscular systems.
Their diet is based primarily on insects but hedgehogs are actually omnivorous.
In Sicily hedgehogs occasionally feed on snails, toads, small snakes, wild
mushrooms, grass roots, berries and even watermelons and earthworms. They
sometimes make their way into agricultural areas.There is no evidence that
Sicily's hedgehogs hibernate.
There is no evidence that Sicilians ever consumed hedgehogs as food.
Indeed, as long ago as the nineteenth century it appears that few Sicilians
even knew of the creature's existence.
How many hedgehogs are there in Sicily? Given the animal's habit of coming
out only after dark, and the rarity of sightings, it is impossible to know
for certain. Its habitat has been restricted in recent decades, though perhaps
not much more so than over the last few centuries --extensive deforestation
having claimed most of Sicily's woodlands since around 1600.
And the porcupine? The essentially-African crested
porcupine also lives in Sicily, though it is extremely rare, and shares
the hedgehog's habitat.
About the Author: Maria Mazzaro writes about nature and environmental topics.