A Prickly Affair
This article was originally published in The Northumbrian Magazine and is republished with permission. Author John Steele previously worked as a long serving Northumberland National Park Ranger.
While I was pondering the subject for this page one evening, into the room slid a pair of giant hedgehog slippers, with one of my daughters sleepily providing the propulsion. The soft, comfortable facsimiles bore little resemblance to the real beast but hedgehogs they certainly were, and enough to recall many interesting encounters of the prickly kind.
A variety of peculiarities amaze me and set them apart from any other native animal. Instead of normal mammalian fur on its back, the hedgehog has modified its hairs into spines and instead of warmth, its gain is in protection. It’s a quite bizarre yet clearly successful adaptation. Usually 5000 spines are found on an adult, but up to 8000 spines have been known on the largest animals.
I remember a tiny orphaned hog which had a pair of white spines that slowly but surely seemed to migrate up its flank as it grew. In truth, the spines stayed while new spines were systematically added to the edge of the ‘skirt’ as the animal grew larger.
When relaxed the spines lie slicked back in a reasonably orderly fashion to allow it to slide through tight gaps and vegetation without getting snagged up. However, when it becomes uneasy the head is lowered and the spines on the head and neck are lifted. As it becomes more alarmed the rest of its body spines rise but not in an orderly way. They can point in all directions, each spines crossed with adjacent ones forming an impenetrably thick mat, ready to repel attackers.