Reflections in Nature: Flatfooted vs. fleet

Although I’ve been retired for more than 11 years, I still am asked questions about animals and the state Game Commission. Last week, a man asked if it is possible to skin a porcupine.

My first thought was that he was concerned about the porcupine quills. I told him that when skinning an animal, most trappers start on the stomach, which would mean skinning a porcupine would not be more difficult than any other animal.

He then asked whether a porcupine was edible, and my answer was yes. I don’t believe that I ever have tasted the meat of a porcupine; however, through the years, I have attended many mystery game dinners, where the guests are encouraged to taste something out of the ordinary. So, perhaps I have.

I once gave a talk about the porcupine to a group of senior citizens and, afterward, an elderly lady told me that when she was growing up in Canada, the family ate porcupine. She went on to tell me that to prevent the meat from having a strong taste, a gland under the front legs was removed before being cooked.

Back when I was young, I always had heard that porcupines were protected in Canada. The reasoning for the protection was if a person became lost for any length of time, a porcupine, being a very slow-moving animal, could be killed for food.

When looking at the season and bag limits for Pennsylvania this year, I noticed that there is a season on porcupines, which runs from Sept. 1 through March 31, with a limit of 10 animals. However, during the regular firearms deer season, the season is closed on this animal.

After moving to Bradford County in 1969, I only saw porcupines on Barclay and Armenia mountains. Today, the porcupine population is high, and their range has expanded.

It is not uncommon to see road-killed porcupines along roads in most sections of the county. The re-introduction of the fisher was to try to reduce the porcupine population; however, only time will tell if the plan has worked.

Porcupines are plantigrade animals, which means they walk flatfooted, rather than on their toes as most animals do. Other animals, such as the bear, skunk and raccoon, also are flatfooted. We humans also walk flatfooted.

The primary advantages, of being flatfooted, are stability and weight-bearing ability because plantigrade feet have a large surface area.

A disadvantage is less speed. With more bones and joints in the foot, the leg is both shorter and heavier, making it difficult to move rapidly.

Usually, animals such as cats and dogs, which are the fastest runners, tend to run on the balls of their feet. Bear are an exception to this rule because they have speed and endurance.

Although the bear, porcupine and raccoon are able to climb trees, it is not their flatfeet that enable them to do this, but rather their long, sharp claws and toenails.

The porcupine and raccoon have front feet adapted for climbing. While the bear’s feet are large, they are not as flexible. When walking, the bear’s front feet appear to be pigeon-toed, which enables the animal to climb and makes it easier to put food into its mouth.

Although porcupines do not hibernate, they do den up for the winter months, and the same den could be used year after year. A dead giveaway to a porcupine’s den is a pile of droppings at the entrance.

A porcupine could leave its den on a sunny winter’s day to climb a tree to feed upon the bark. Perhaps the porcupine will stay in the tree for several days before returning to its den.

Although the skunk and the raccoon do not hibernate, both will den up for the winter. On a winter’s night when the temperature stays above 25 degrees, both of these animals could get up and move about, looking for food.

The bear also dens up for the winter. Its body temperature drops and breathing and heartbeat become slower; however, neither are low enough for the bear to be considered a true hibernator.

During my career, I received many phone calls in the dead of winter, with the caller telling me that they had just seen a bear, even though it was cold, windy and snowing. These sightings probably were young male bears that had not put on enough fat to make it through the winter months or possibly adult bears that had been rousted from their dens.

The creator has equipped each animal with special abilities that not only help them survive but multiply as well.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.