It’s now 2014, a full decade since Jeopardy! made Ken Jennings mildly famous, but he’s still waging his tireless war against misinformation in our weekly “Debunker” column. Did you know that January 21 is Squirrel Appreciation Day? Or that David Seville of “The Chipmunks” fame was born on January 27? By the end of this month, of course, the most famous rodent-related day on the calendar, Groundhog Day, will be just hours away. In honor of our small woodland friends, most of whom are probably hibernating right now, Ken will spend the month of January gnawing away at all the rodent-related facts you only thought you knew.
The Debunker: Can Porcupines Shoot Their Quills?
If you believe, as I do, that the moral arc of the universe bends away from ignorance, then the matter of porcupine defense is a depressing one. People have been wrong about porcupine quills for over 2,500 years, and don’t seem to be getting any less wrong. It’s not just dumb people, either. Our belief that porcupines can shoot their spiny quills through the air to ward of attackers dates back at least as far as Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of his day. The Greek naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote, “The quills of the porcupine are longer, and when it stretches the skin, it discharges them like so many missiles.”
Now, this is not true. It has never been true. A porcupine’s thirty thousands quills are just modified hairs, made of keratin, the same protein that your hair and nails are made of. And a porcupine’s skin musculature can raise the quills when a porcupine is threatened. This is the same reflex that makes a cat bristle when it gets scared, and raises goose bumps on our own sadly-denuded-by-evolution skin when we get scared. But a porcupine can go one better: when the chips are down, it will use its bristles to go on the attack, jumping at an enemy or flicking its tail. Porcupine quills are barbed like a fishhook, and very hard to remove. Typically, one skewering is all a potential predator needs to encourage it to seek lunch elsewhere.
Now that you know, please tell your friends: porcupines can poke people with their quills, but can’t shoot them through the air like little javelins (as cool as that would be). I need your help here. Millennia have passed and the human race is still having a hard time coming correct on this. Way back in 1859, American writer Samuel Griswold Goodrich tried to debunk the porcupine story in his Natural History of the Animal Kingdom. “A loose quill may be detached by the Porcupine,” he wrote, “but the power of ejaculation to a distance does not exist.” I’m sorry to hear about your personal problems, Samuel, but I appreciate you trying to set the record straight.
Quick Quiz: The Porcupine Mountains, a.k.a. “the Porkies,” are found in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on the shores of what lake?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.