When Lions And Porcupines Battle, Humans Lose

8:53 minutes

a brown porcupine with white quills forages in the dirt
An African porcupine. © Eric Kilby.

When you think of lions hunting, you probably imagine them feasting on a large animal like a buffalo or an antelope. But during times of drought or disease, those preferred kinds of prey may be in short supply, and lions have to turn to other sources of food like the East African porcupine. But while the lion may get a quick meal when it attacks a porcupine, the porcupine may win in the long run.

Writing in the Journal of East African Natural History, Julian Kerbis Peterhans and colleagues look at the history of lion-porcupine interactions in literature and news reports, as well as taking a look at samples of lions collected in museums. They found that an untreated porcupine quill wound is often enough to severely injure a lion. If the wound becomes infected or hinders eating, it can lead to death. And, when a lion is injured and has difficulty hunting its usual prey, it can sometimes turn to easier sources of food—like humans. The researchers found several instances of famous human-eating lions that appeared to have suffered from porcupine quill wounds. Kerbis joins Ira to talk about the study, and what this seemingly mismatched battle can teach us about survival in the animal kingdom.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Julian Kerbis Peterhans

Julian Kerbis Peterhans is a professor of Natural Science at Roosevelt University, and an adjunct curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: For the rest of the hour, we’re going to take a trip to Africa, or at least a trip to the museum, to look at the remains of some stuffed African lions because when you think of lions hunting, you probably imagine them feasting on a large animal, like a water buffalo or an antelope. But during times of drought or disease, those preferred kinds of prey may be in short supply. And lions have to turn to less desirable sources of food, like porcupines– yes, porcupine. 

So what happens when lion meets porcupine? Julian Kerbis Peterhans is professor of natural science at Roosevelt University and adjunct curator at the Field Museum, the famous Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. His article on this topic is published this week in the Journal of East African Natural History. Welcome, Dr. Kerbis. 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: Why would a big lion, you know, go after a porcupine, knowing about the quills and all that kind of stuff? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Well, as you said in your intro, there are certain conditions, especially drought and in prey depauperate environments, where lions have very little alternative. And so they do seek, quote, unquote, “less desirable prey,” sometimes with harmful or even occasionally fatal results. 

IRA FLATOW: So a little eight-pound porcupine can kill a lion? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Fortuitously, the one in a million shot attacking a porcupine, a quill might go through a heart or a carotid artery or a femoral artery. But more often than not, what happens is they get impaled, and they have long-term suffering wounds, which leads to their debilitation, their weakness, their inability to pursue fleet-footed prey. Or they might have quills in their paw, for example. And it’s kind of a downward spiral from there. And then they may turn to livestock or people– in which case, they get eliminated. 

IRA FLATOW: Let me back up because that seemed to be a major point. So after they attack a porcupine, they may say, ooh, this hurts a little too much. Let’s find easier prey. Go after a person? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Well, they are forced to due to starvation. I mean, lions do not typically attack people or livestock. But when they’re forced to make those decisions due to starvation, they may pursue those items. And then they get in big trouble with humanity. 

IRA FLATOW: So you’re museum collections have lots of lions in them. And you use them, those old specimens, for your research. 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Yeah, one of the great Field Museum exhibits is the man-eating lions of Tsavo, an exhibit that Tom Gnoske and I have been studying for 20, 25 years. And my doctoral work was actually on African carnivores. And so this story is near and dear to our hearts. 

And years ago, Tom was doing some forensic investigations of the tooth contents of the broken teeth of both Tsavo man-eaters and, indeed, found porcupine quill fragments embedded within these broken teeth. And so these animals that were shot in 1898, 120 years later are still providing evidence on their lifestyle and behavior. And so it’s a real tribute to the museum collections. And the lions are a research gift that keeps on producing new and intriguing possibilities and results. And we have other things down the pike that are still evolving. 

IRA FLATOW: Good. Can you tell how many porcupines an average lion eats, or what percentage of its diet could be porcupine? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Well, in one study in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in Botswana, they represented about 35% of lion kills. Now, that’s not total meat intake because they might take an eeland and get several hundred pounds of meat from that single animal. But in terms of number of kills, 35% in this prey depauperate landscape, which didn’t have their typical prey of wildebeest or zebra, something like that. 

The problem these days is a lot of the landscapes have been, quote, unquote, “contaminated” with water wells and boreholes to keep animals in place for the benefit of tourists or for livestock. And that’s kind of changed the ecological dynamic. So we kind of dove deep into the historical literature to come up with our pre-altered landscape theories and hypotheses. 

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking with Julian Kerbis about porcupines versus lions. Do we know that they prefer porcupines over other prey? Do they taste good to a lion? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Yeah, the problem with that is these are small animals, and it’s hard to document everything a lion eats. And a smaller animal will disappear or there won’t be much of a skeletal pile to examine the next day. So the studies we had to refer to tracked lions 24/7. And those are very hard to come by. So a lot of the classic lion studies by George Schaller and others, we had to throw out. We couldn’t use them because they didn’t track everything a lion ate. But these fellows in Botswana did. And we got very good details on dietary remains. 

So there is a lot of work to do on this subject. Perhaps by– my colleague Tom Gnoske was just suggesting today just retrieving scat of lions on a year-round basis and try to document prey as it changes over time. 

IRA FLATOW: Are there any– do certain lions at certain ages prefer porcupines over lions at other ages? Or do you get a little smarter as you grow up or afraid that you might get hurt or killed by the porcupine? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Yeah, the evidence is anecdotal. But there does appear to be a tendency of younger male lions to get impaled more often certainly than females, and certainly than older males. And this was something that, over 100 years ago, a famous game warden in South Africa, Stevenson-Hamilton, came up with. I can kind of casually refer to it as the foolish young male hypothesis. But he had a great quote in this paper about the frequency of injured young male lions as opposed to adult females or even older male lions. So there does seem to be a correlation in that regard. I think we had 15 out of 20 instances in our literature research of over 300 to 400 years. 15 out of 20 of the seriously wounded lions were male, as opposed to female, and several of the dead ones as well. 

IRA FLATOW: So if porcupines, you know, can be that fatal to lions, do the park rangers keep an eye out for the porcupine so you might reduce the risk? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: Well, that’s a really good question. One of the take-home messages is that any lion that is seen in a park impaled with a porcupine quill should be taken care of. And so authorities should be notified. The lion can be treated. They recover easily once the quill is removed. But if that quill is getting irritated continuously, it just leads to this festering wound. And so that is one of the outcomes, that take care of the lions right away. 

You can’t get rid of the porcupines. That’s part of the landscape. And there is a mobile unit in Kenya called the Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit. And that’s exactly what they do, removing snares from wounded animals or something. Because in desperation, that’s when the behavior will change. 

IRA FLATOW: OK, final question– have you ever tasted porcupine meat? 

JULIAN KERBIS PETERHANS: I’ve been asked that. And I am actually embarrassed to say I have not tasted porcupine meat. But they are a prized food preferentially by both people and animals. So somehow, whether it be North American, South American porcupines, or African porcupines, it’s a very cherished food. 

We had a little data in our paper that suggests they are taken disproportionate to their abundance in a slightly elevated rate. Despite the dangers in taking them, they are taken with some kind of favorability by lions. In terms of human preferences for porcupines, we can look at the cost of meat per kilo in Bush markets to see if porcupine meat is going for higher prices. But that’s a whole other project. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. And there’s a little trivia fact for the weekend. Thank you very much, Julian Kerbis, for talking to us about porcupines and lions. Dr. Kerbis is a professor of natural science at Roosevelt University and adjunct curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

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