Wild Feature: The Hedgehog, also known as Erinaceus Europaeus

The insectivores are a wide-ranging group of small mammals, all with sensitive and highly mobile noses, small eyes and relatively small brains. They are generally solitary, nocturnal animals, the majority of which eat insects, earthworms and other invertebrates. Their teeth are well designed for eating insects, with long incisors for seizing their prey and sharp molars for dealing with their tough bodies.

Source: The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Animals of the World. Page 378. By Tom Jackson

Did you know that The McGillicuddy Serious Party, a satirical political party in New Zealand, is said to have tried electing a hedgehog to parliament though unsuccessfully? And that the IHOG (International Hedgehog Olympic Games) once existed and included sprints, hurdles, and floor exercises?

Name: Its latin name ‘Erinaceus’ is derived from ‘ericius’ which means ‘a spiked barrier’. Its scavenging habits and tendency to grunt like a pig in such of their favourite food earned them their name. Therefore the name Erinaceus europaeus means European Hedgehog.

Scientific Classification: The Hedgehog belongs to the animalia kingdom, erinaceinae sub family of the erinaceidae and in 17 known species. Other genera include the Atelerix, Erinaceus, Hemiechinus, Mesechinus, and Paraechinus. They can be found in parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and by introduction in New Zealand and some parts of Australia.

Location and distribution: The Hedgehog (erinaceus europaeus) can be found in Western Europe and Northern Russia while the Southern African hedgehog (atelerix frontalis) is commonly sighted in Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.

Ancestry, Evolutionary Overview and Relatives: Hedgies are believed to share distant ancestry with shrews shrews (family Soricidae),  gymnures and have barely changed over the last 15 million years. Said to be among many of the first mammals, they have adapted to a nocturnal way of life with their spiky outer resembling that of the unrelated porcupines,  and echidnas. Although mostly nocturnal, they are sometimes active during the day, especially after it has rained.

Community and Habitat: Naturally, they live in grasslands, hedgerows, farmlands, gardens, woodland and meadows. They are quite good swimmers and climb trees. They are comfortable in moist places, over or underground in holes, abandoned tunnels, forests under branches, leaves, roots of plants, and stems where they sleep for several hours during the day. Places with  a lot of insects on the ground are usually the preferred choice.

Feeding: Their diet is quiet varied and almost exotic with preference for earthworms, insects, birds’ eggs, frogs, lizards and snake treats. It is believed that such eclectic tastes for larger foods have lent hedgehogs their bigger size as compared to their smaller mole-size friends. The European hedgehog can grow between 22 to 28cm while the Southern African hedgehog may grow between 15 to 20cm.

Survival and Defense: Hedgehogs are famous for their prickly spines, which are all over except on their face, legs and bellies. These offer them defense while they sleep and when confronted by predators. By curling into a tight ball and tucking in their heads, tail and legs, they protect vulnerable parts of their body. Each hedgehog has about 5,000 spikes that may last a year.

Breeding and Conservation Status: They are pretty solitary but come together mostly to mate and between 2 to 10 young ones (also known as urchins) are born in the summer for the European hedgehog and throughout the year for the Southern African hedgehog. Unlike the Southern African hedgehog which is quite common, the European Hedgehog population is said to be declining in the UK. At the moment there are no native hedgehogs to Australia and the Amphechinus species that was native to the Americas is believed to be extinct. On the bright side though, we can expect to have our little spiky friends around for a very long time since they are not considered anywhere near threatened or endangered.

Relationship with Human Societies: The African pygymy hedgehog is known to be the most commonly domesticated. Hedgehogs are a common pet and given adorable names for their cuteness such as “hedgies”, “critters”, “gardener’s friends”, and more. While adored, they are considered illegal in some parts of the United States as they are qualified as “wild animals” in Arizona, Georgia, California, Hawaii, New York, Pennyslvania, and Washington D.C. You may keep one in Maine but with a permit.

Fun facts: Still not sure why they “self anoint”,  these amazingly cool animals are immune to certain poisonous plants, which they taste before making a frothy saliva in their mouth. The hedgehogs then lick their spines, spreading the saliva with the plant”s poison, or fragrance all over the spikes. It is said that this might help them blend in with new environments as some form of camouflage should there be danger and that this to a certain extent makes them immune to snake poison (now we know why they are so confident taking on snake treats as a delicacy!). More exciting facts here.

Sources cited/ for further reading:

  1. National Geographic Kids
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Buzzfeed
  4. The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Animals of the World. By Tom Jackson

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