‘David and Goliath’ fights to the death between lions and porcupines more common than thought

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By looking at fights between lions and porcupines, scientists have found that the spike creatures make formidable opponent for the king of the jungle. 

Porcupines may be more than ten times smaller than the average lions, but their more than 30,000 razor-sharp quills actually give them the edge in battles with lions. 

In the first study to look at historical encounters between the two species, a team at Field Museum examined conflicts in newspaper articles, journals and internet reports.

They found that such attacks were more common than previously thought and that lions generally stayed clear of the prickly creatures to avoid being fatally wounded by their spikes. 

African porcupines are large rodents, weighing about about 40lbs (18kg), and predators including humans seek them out for their tasty flesh. 

The underbelly of a porcupine provides juicy meat for lions, but getting to it is not so easy. 

The research team found evidence of about fifty lions that had been injured or killed by porcupines. 

Lions that lived on harsher, drier terrain seemed to rely more on porcupines for food, perhaps because other prey weren’t available. 

Young lions were more likely to try to hunt porcupines than older lions. And most of the lions injured by porcupines were male. 

But their backs are covered in sharp quills made of keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails. 

These quills, which can be a foot long or more, can detach and get stuck in the flesh of predators. 

First it has to get the spiny critters on its back, but even so, the spikes of a porcupine can pierce the flesh of any lion which gets too close and leave it with potentially fatal injuries. 

They found that the average lion which weigh 400lbs (180kg) is no match for the porcupine.

They may be able to bring down large prey like wildebeests, zebras and even giraffes, but most steer clear of the spiky creatures knowing there can be a heavy price to pay, the researchers say.

Lead author Professor Julian Kerbis Peterhans, a zoologist at the Field Museum, Chicago, said: ‘By examining records of lions that have been injured by porcupines, we were able to develop a better picture of the conditions that lead lions to try to hunt porcupines and what happens to the lions who get stuck.’

His team analysed historical records to discover what leads lions to hunt porcupines and what happens when they do.

Procupines’ spikes may just be modified hairs but they are so needle sharp they can get stuck in the lion’s nose, making it impossible to hunt, or go deep into the skin leading to deadly infections.

Co-author Professor Gastone Celesia, a neurologist at Loyola University, Chicago, added: ‘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.

‘Even though lions are at the top of the food chain, they get injured if they don’t watch what they’re doing.’

African porcupines are large rodents, weighing about about forty pounds. They are so tasty even humans have tried to hunt them.

But their backs are covered in sharp quills made of keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails. 

Measuring more than a foot long, they can detach and get stuck in predators careless or desperate enough to attack.

Stories of lions getting injured by porcupines date back hundreds of years. 

Professor Kerbis Peterhans and colleagues scoured scientific literature, newspaper articles and even YouTube videos looking for evidence of interactions between lions and porcupines. 

In June, July and August of 1656, an official from the Dutch East Company in Cape Town wrote in his diary about three different lions that had been injured by porcupines.  

Co-author Dr Tom Gnoske, an assistant collections manager at the Field Museum, said: ‘I think digging deeply into the historic literature, especially very early sources, has largely fallen out of fashion in the modern era.  

Prof Kerbis Peterhans added: ‘There was a tendency for males to be more often wounded or killed by porcupines – sort of a ‘young foolish male syndrome.” 

They are not just taking part in risky behaviour, but without other lions to help them if they do get hurt, they are more prone.

He explained: ‘In social contexts, a lion can remove porcupine quills with the help of a friend, but this is not possible if they are solitary.’

The researchers also used CT scans on the skulls of two man eating lions from 1965 to more closely examine the effect on their hunting abilities.

One had been stuck through the nose with a nine-inch quill, and the other had an inch-long segment embedded in the nerve pulp of its broken canine tooth. 

They showed evidence of bone infections that would have impaired eating of prey and, in the case of the lion with a quill through its nose, smelling of it – factors that could have fuelled man-eating.

Lions generally attack humans if something is wrong, such as not being physically able to take down their usual prey, or if they don’t have enough space or resources to hunt normally.

The study published in the Journal of East African Natural History could shed fresh light on why lions harm people – and have broader ecological significance,

Professor Kerbis Peterhans said: ‘Porcupine injuries are an anticipator of attacks on humans, there is a potential impact on human beings.

Dr Gnoske said: ‘We know from forty-plus years of continuous behavioural research on lions since the 1960s that lions prefer large hooved animals as prey, including antelope, zebra, and buffalo.

‘And our data suggest by the time the lions are relegated to eating porcupines, there is already a problem with the local food supply.

‘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.’

Professor Celesia added: ‘One moral of the story is there is no free lunch. Even the king of beasts doesn’t eat what he wants without paying a price.’

 

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