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Porcupines in the Arctic: How do they survive in winter?

Sasha and Little Phil from the Alaska Zoo
Porcupines in Alaska.
Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 6:36 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU)- Porcupines are not the first animal that comes to mind when one thinks of Alaska, but Alaska Zoo Curator Sam Lavin believes they are one of the toughest animals in Alaska.

The zoo currently has two Porcupines in residence, Little Phil and Sasha. They both have unique personalities and Sasha is used for Zoo educational purposes for children.

“They spend their summer and fall just putting on fat like to an extent that like, a bear or a seal would, like just layering it on,” Lavin said.

At the zoo, their diet consists of whole vegetables, leaf greens, a little bit of fruit, and rodent blocks, but in the wild they eat whatever they can get.

“It ends up being spruce trees a lot of times, so they’ll eat needles, they’ll eat the layer underneath the bark, so they’re chewers,” Lavin said.

They gain a coat in the winter that makes them perceived as much less dangerous. One thing all porcupines have in common is that they love to eat.

“The brown hair she only has in the winter and that’s her puffy coat for the winter and then underneath that is all of her quills,” Lavin explained. “In the summer they look a lot more dangerous, the winter they just get this puffy coat on and they don’t look very dangerous at all, but they’re all in there.”

The puffy coat is like cat whiskers that allow the porcupine to have a sense of what is around them.

According to a six-year-study conducted by biologist Jesse Coltrane at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska porcupines are almost twice as large as lower 48 porcupines. In winter they’re able to stabilize their body temperature by using quills and guard hair to insulate themselves. They are ultimately able to survive the winter by burning fat and moving very little. In fact, about 50% of the porcupines weight in the fall was in the form of fat. During winter about 30% of that fat reserve is lost.

Porcupines happened to be Lavin’s favorite animal due to her friendship with Sasha for so long.

“I love them all, they’re all so different and they’re all individuals, you know, and all the animals at the zoo have a story, and you just try and do the best you can for them” Lavin said.

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