"We've been getting scattered reports of porcupines in the area for the last few years," said Craig Stihler, a DNR wildlife biologist specializing in non-game wildlife. "We've had several instances of dogs coming to veterinary offices with quills in their faces, and we've had a few road-kill incidents, including one near Elkins."
Until porcupines began turning up in West Virginia in recent years, the animals apparently had been absent for more than a century.
"As best we can tell, they were here in some of our higher-elevation forests, but gone about the time of early settlement" and the start of wide-scale deforestation, said Chris Ryan, a DNR wildlife biologist based in Charleston.
According to an article in the 1879 "Proceedings of the United States National Museum," by G. Brown Goode, then the museum's assistant director, a live porcupine captured near Terra Alta, Preston County, was acquired by the museum that year. "It is believed to be the most southern occurrence of the species" at the time, Goode wrote.
Stihler said the presence of porcupine pellets and remains in West Virginia caves add to the animal's status as a native species.
Fossils of an extinct species of porcupine known as coendou intermedia, dating back 500,000 years, have been excavated from West Virginia caves.
Adult porcupines range from 2 to 3 feet in height, and weigh between 12 and 35 pounds. The animal has black to brownish-yellow fur and up to 30,000 quills across its body, except for its belly and a portion of its face.
While the porcupine does not throw quills, when attacked it will turn its back on an attacker, raise its quills and lash out with its tail. Porcupines are mostly nocturnal, but will forage for food during the day.
Porcupines are good tree climbers and swimmers, and are quite vocal, making a variety of grunts, groans, coughs and wails.
While an old joke holds that the answer to the question of how porcupines mate is "very carefully," the mating process is much less restrained in real life. According to the website of Nature Works, a show from New Hampshire Public Television, the porcupine mating ritual includes frequent, noisy fighting by males over females, followed by an elaborate mating dance by males that culminates in the spraying of urine over the heads of desired females.
The only animal other than the mountain lion known to be a natural predator of the porcupine is the fisher, another mammal that once was forced to leave West Virginia but was re-established by a successful program that began in 1969.
"We have a fisher exhibit here," said Thorn, the head of the West Virginia Wildlife Center, which displays wildlife native to, or once native to, West Virginia. "I've put the word out that, if anyone comes across a porcupine, we'd like to exhibit it here, too."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.