Why Do Hedgehogs Have Spikes?

Hedgehogs are easily one of the most unmistakable little critters out there, but how much do you know about them? Sonic is (somehow) a hedgehog, but they’re not really known for being quick on their feet. They’re irrefutably adorable, sometimes pets, and prickly little fellas that roll themselves up like a pill bug, but what else? Where are they native to? What do they eat? Why do hedgehogs have spikes?

Let’s start with the zoological bits. There are 17 species (5 genera) found throughout parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. They’ve also been introduced to New Zealand. None are native to Australia, and none can be found in the Americas, but there was at one time—the now extinct genus Amphechinus.

The first hedgehogs evolved around 15 million years ago and haven’t changed much since. If you take a deep look at their family tree, you’ll see connections to shrews in the distant past, probably linked through shared ancestors with Gymnures, aka moonrats.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal omnivores, eating everything from insects, snails, and snakes to carrion, eggs, and frogs. Really anything they can catch that’s small enough to eat and they’re quick enough to catch.

Despite looking like porcupines and echidnas, they aren’t related. Instead, this is a case of convergent evolution, when two or more unrelated species evolve similar characteristics for a similar purpose. Think wings, bats, and butterflies.

An adult hedgehog’s body can be around 20-30 cm in length and covered in up to 5,000 quills, each one 2-3 cm in length. Those spikes, they’re hair! Just denser. They’re made of the same stuff—keratin. The same stuff that our hair and nails are made of.

Just as porcupines and echidnas use their quills for protection, so do hedgehogs. Hedgehogs aren’t the fastest or most ferocious. When you’re a slow little critter with a soft belly, outrunning or fighting isn’t much of an option. That leaves you with two: hiding and defending. Their spines aren’t toxic and they can’t be used as a projectile. Instead, the spikes help to deter would-be predators as does their ability to roll up into a ball like a land urchin.

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The Wild Life was created in January of 2017 by, me, Devon Bowker (He/They) after finishing my degree in wildlife biology. It’s been amazing to see how things have changed over the past 5 years, both personally and here. I have tons of ideas and projects in the works and cannot wait to share them with you. Whether you’re a long-time follower or new to The Wild Life, thank you for being here.

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