No Pain No Gain: Why Lions Hunt Porcupines Despite Often Losing

Lions often lose out to the smaller but spiky creature, yet they continue to hunt.
Jessica Miley

Scientists have studied the relationship between porcupines and lions in a bid to understand evolution better. Lions are an apex creature, a fierce hunter with few enemies. But the much smaller porcupine can give these incredible beats a run for their money.


Researchers from Roosevelt University have examined the history of the relationship between lions and porcupines to figure out why lions are attracted to hunt porcupines and why the porcupines often win the war.

No Pain No Gain: Why Lions Hunt Porcupines Despite Often Losing
Source: Julian Kerbis Peterhans, photo by John Perrott

Research scours YouTube and literature

"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," says Julian Kerbis Peterhans, a researcher at the Field Museum, professor at Roosevelt University, and lead author of the new study in the Journal of East African Natural History.

African porcupines are covered in strong, sharp quills. The spikes can grow as long as 30 cm, are made from keratin, the same material as hair and fingernails. Predators hoping to enjoy the famed tender meat of the porcupine have to devise a way to get around this natural armor.

Porcupine attacks lead long painful legacy

The quills can easily get stuck in a hunter's skin causing long term injury and impairment. Stories of lion versus porcupines battle go back centuries. One of the first known accounts was recorded by an official from the Dutch East Company in Cape Town who described three attacks in June, July, and August of 1656.

The official's diary records instances where lions had been struck by the porcupine's quills causing them injuries that made them slower and less able to hunt. These maimed lions were then reported to have turned to easier targets such as cattle and even humans.

Young males make mistakes most often 

The researchers collected accounts like these diary entries to conduct their research. They turned to a variety of content including, video, radio, YouTube and examples in literature as well as scientific papers.

"I think that digging deeply into the historic literature, especially very early sources, has largely fallen out of fashion in the modern era," says Tom Gnoske, a co-author of the paper and an assistant collections manager at the Field Museum.

"There are treasures still to be found, but going back in the written record four centuries, well, that takes some patience and time."

At the end of their search, the team found about fifty examples where lions had been killed or injured by porcupines.

By analyzing their data they could see several trends start to appear. It seems that lions living in harsh conditions in drier landscapes relied more heavily on porcupines for food than their family members living in more abundant terrains.

It also showed that younger lions hunted porcupines more often than older lions and that it was almost always males that hunted out the potentially dangerous prey.

"There was a tendency for males to be more often wounded or killed by porcupines--sort of a 'young foolish male syndrome,'" says Kerbis Peterhans.

To compound matters, young males aren't just taking part in risky behavior, but when they so alone, without other lions to help them if they do get hurt, they are more vulnerable.

"In social contexts, a lion can remove porcupine quills with the help of a friend, but this is not possible if they are solitary," he explains. The study goes some way to better understand what the conditions are that lead a lion to hunt humans.

"Porcupine injuries are an anticipator of attacks on humans; there's a potential impact on human beings," he says. And the study has broader ecological significance, too.

"We know from forty-plus years of continuous behavioral research on lions since the 1960s that lions prefer large hooved animals as prey, including antelope, zebra, and buffalo," says Gnoske.

"And our data suggest that by the time the lions are relegated to eating porcupines, there's 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."

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