When faced with a slow-moving, albeit prickly rodent, you might expect the King of the Jungle to come out on top. However, it’s barbs over brawn on the plains of Africa; porcupines are surprisingly good at fending off their feline foe.
According to a new study in the Journal of East African Natural History, hungry lions craving a porcupine’s tasty flesh often get injured – or even killed – by the spiny critters, which weigh a measly 40 pounds (18 kilograms) compared to a lion’s 400 pounds (180 kilograms). It seems detachable foot-long spines make rather handy defensive spears.
"It's David and Goliath on the African savanna. The powerful king of the savanna tries to eat a juicy, fat porcupine, but he gets hurt by the quills," said study co-author Gastone Celesia, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, in a statement. "Even though lions are at the top of the food chain, they get injured if they don't watch what they're doing."
To delve into the tumultuous relationship between lions and their prickled opponents, the researchers compiled data on their interactions, looking at scientific reports, press articles, and videos from between 1960 and 2016. A systematic assessment of lion/porcupine skirmishes had never been carried out before.
Over this time period, the team found evidence of about 50 lions being hurt or slain by porcupines, a surprisingly high number. They found that the victims tended to be cats living in harsh, dry environments, where easier-to-hunt prey can be in short supply. Meanwhile, wounded lions were often young, perhaps lacking the wisdom of their porcupine-averse elders.
The majority of the lions were also male – injured young males are particularly vulnerable as they often live alone, without fellow pride members to help them obtain food or tend to their wounds.
"In social contexts, a lion can remove porcupine quills with the help of a friend, but this is not possible if they are solitary," said lead author Julian Kerbis Peterhans, a professor at Roosevelt University.
A lion at the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa on an enrichment walk comes face to face with a porcupine.
The researchers also managed to assess the severity of porcupine stab wounds using CT scans. "We were like detectives," said Celesia. "CT scans let us reconstruct what happened in the past."
They scanned two lion skulls from 1965 – one had part of a quill embedded in its tooth, while the other had been skewered through the nose. Both lions showed signs of bone infections that would have made it pretty tricky for them to hunt or eat. The lions had attacked humans – a common last resort when animals are struggling to catch their natural prey.
"Porcupine injuries are an anticipator of attacks on humans, there's a potential impact on human beings," explained Kerbis Peterhans.
“Our data suggest that by the time the lions are relegated to eating porcupines, there's already a problem with the local food supply,” added co-author Tom Gnoske, an assistant collections manager at the Field Museum. “Historic records tell us that when environmental conditions deteriorate, particularly in areas where lions and their preferred prey are already living on the edge, they find themselves in serious trouble with nearby humans or their livestock."
It seems Africa’s most revered predators only take on porcupines when they really, really have to. Porcupines might not be as belligerent as the infamous honey badger, but their spines sure pack a punch.