Rodents: Gnawing or Awesome Creatures?

Floating through powder, turns rhythmic, in the zone, I am startled by a voice above. “Watch out for the … porcupine!” What? Did he say porcupine? My naturalist senses kick into action and above me, within spitting range, crossing the bottom of Boomerang is a blunt faced, waddling bundle of long spiky hairs.

Porcupines belong to the order of rodents, along with squirrels, mice, beaver, rats and voles. In the Rocky Mountains you are more likely to see a member of this group than any other mammal. Forty percent of mammals belong to the order whose name in Latin is rodere meaning “to gnaw”.

And rodents can chew … through the base of gigantic cottonwood trees, destroy brake linings under cars high in the mountains, mangle salty hiking boots left outside your tent, tear off pine tree bark, and consume vast quantities of seeds. In fact rodents are compelled genetically to gnaw down their continuously growing pair of incisors. Sharp, chisel like front teeth break food into bite size pieces, cut down trees to strip off tasty bark, tear back pine tree bark to reach nutritious layers underneath, rip off fir cone bracts to devour seeds or for biting predators.

A porcupine seen in the middle of day, crossing a busy ski slope is a rare site. Nocturnal, porcupines are typically very shy although capable of holding their own when threatened. The second largest rodent in the Rockies behind the beaver, they have the most developed defense strategy, prickly quills. Curious predators stimulate the raising of 30,000 sharp, needle like quills that easily lodge when touched. Although easy to penetrate, quills have barbs making them difficult to remove. Once infected with quills, predators, if they survive, likely never make the same mistake twice. It is a myth that they can launch their quills; the tail must be touched.

Like many other rodents, porcupines adapt to food available at every season. Eating leaves and fruit in the summer, they survive in winter eating bark, evergreen needles, buds, twigs, even cast off antlers. Their favourite food is mistletoe, a parasite shrub found commonly on pine trees. Active year round, the Boomerang porcupine likely lives somewhere on the ski hill within 100 meters.

Other rodents you will see and hear in the winter are chatty red squirrels. With their hairy tails, strong hind legs used to jump from tree to tree and bound through the snow, these creatures are a delight to watch. Unlike their ‘ground’ counterparts that hibernate from late August to April, these busy animals leave piles of cone bracts and shafts in middens or waste heaps throughout the forest. Nesting underground, squirrels benefit from the insulating layer of snow to help keep them warm.

Rodents have a pesky past, spreading disease and eating seeds collected for human food supply. Fleas residing on black rats carried by merchant ships brought the Black Death or bubonic plague to Europe killing 30-60% of the population, millions of people between the 14th and 19th Century. Infected rodents carry hantavirus, a cardio-pulmonary syndrome, although rare can be fatal to humans, is transmitted through urine, droppings or saliva, which can be contracted by breathing in the airborne virus. Beavers cutting down trees and flooding property sometimes frustrate homeowners. Squirrels can get into attics and mice into walls disturbing residents with scratching and feces, not to mention chewing open bags and clothing.

Still rodents play an important roll in natural ecosystems. They reproduce rapidly providing food for many predators. Seeds are moved around aiding plant dispersal. As disease vectors, they keep populations sustainable.

Although certainly plagued by rodents, humans have also benefited by these small, resilient creatures. Beaver furs fueled a fashion craze in Europe’s top hat industry, contributing to the settlement of Canada and our oldest corporation “The Hudson’s Bay”. Which family has not been through the rodent phase of owning a guinea pig, hamster or gerbil? Rats and mice are model organisms to test cures for human ailments. They have even been successfully used to detect landmines.

Next time you have a close encounter with a rodent whether on a tree in your backyard or while skiing Boomerang, reflect on the success of these sometimes awesome and annoying “gnawing” creature.