Hedgehog | Small Mammal, Nocturnal Habits & Spines (2024)



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Also known as: Erinaceinae

Written by

Guy Musser Archbold Curator Emeritus Vertebrate Zoology and Mammalogy, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, U.S.

Guy Musser

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Related Topics:
African hedgehog
steppe hedgehog
desert hedgehog
western European hedgehog
Hemiechinus aethiopicus

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hedgehog, (subfamily Erinaceinae), any of 15 Old World species of insectivores possessing several thousand short, smooth spines. Most species weigh under 700 grams (1.5 pounds), but the common western European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) can grow to 1,100 grams. Body length is 14 to 30 cm (5.5 to 12 inches), and there is a stumpy and sparsely furred tail measuring 1 to 6 cm. In addition to the three species of Eurasian hedgehogs (genus Erinaceus), there are four African hedgehogs (genus Atelerix), six desert hedgehogs (genus Hemiechinus), and two steppe hedgehogs (genus Mesechinus). European hedgehogs are kept as pets, as is the African pygmy hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris).

All hedgehogs are similar in body form, but some desert species have larger ears and longer legs. The short, stocky body is densely covered with spines except for the underside, legs, face, and ears. The cream-coloured spines are banded with brown and black, and coloration of the upperparts ranges from speckled cream to brown, depending upon the width of the pigmented bands; some individuals are black (melanistic). The underside is covered by a sparse, coarse coat, ranging from white to black (sometimes mottled), depending upon the species. The face may be white, brownish, or exhibiting a masked pattern. The limbs are thin and very short, but the feet are large and bear long, curved claws (the first toe is small or absent in Atelerix). Although the eyes are large, vision is poor. Hearing and smell, however, are acute; the ears are conspicuous, and the tapered, mobile muzzle ends in a moist, hairless nose.

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Hedgehogs crouch, hiss, and erect their spines at the slightest danger, but their best defense is to curl into a protective ball. “Rolling up” is made possible primarily by a muscle that encircles the body from neck to rump along the sides of the body just beneath the skin and within which the peripheral spines are embedded. As the animal curls, this muscle and several smaller connecting muscles contract the upperparts into a bag (like a drawstring) into which the head, body, and legs are drawn. The normally oblique spines become erect, and the animal is transformed into a ball of formidable sharp spines that completely protect the vulnerable head, appendages, and soft belly. In this configuration hedgehogs are usually protected against mammalian predators, but they are still vulnerable to some species of hawks, eagles, and owls owing to the birds’ scaly legs and long, sharp talons. Hedgehogs walk in a slow toddle or with short, rapid steps, depending upon the species, and stop frequently to sniff the air. They are also capable of short bursts of speed, raising their body high off the ground as they run on the hairless soles of their feet.

Hedgehogs are primarily nocturnal but are sometimes active during the day following light rainfall. They are terrestrial, though some can climb and swim. Hedgehogs shelter by day beneath vegetation, in rock crevices, beneath overhanging rock ledges, or in burrows they excavate by using their forefeet. They also use the burrows of other mammals, especially hares and foxes. Some species, including the western European hedgehog, hibernate during the winter months, having accumulated fat under the skin and around the viscera and shoulders. At the hibernation temperature of 4 °C (39 °F), the heartbeat slows from 190 to 20 per minute, and breathing is reduced to 10 inhalations per minute. Other species living in especially hot or seasonal regions may enter short periods of torpor. They construct large nests of dry vegetation in burrow chambers or beneath vegetation on dry ground.

The hedgehog’s diet consists of insects, other arthropods (including venomous spiders and scorpions), snails, slugs, frogs and toads, lizards, snakes (including venomous species), bird eggs, nestlings, and fallen fruit. Hedgehogs use their acute sense of smell to locate food, grabbing active prey with the mouth as they root around in leaf litter and among plant roots. They snuffle and snort while foraging and manipulate prey solely with the mouth, chewing with noisy smacking of the jaws. Hedgehogs will lick or chew unfamiliar substances or objects and produce copious frothy saliva and then plaster the froth over and between their spines and onto other parts of the body. The significance of this behaviour is unknown.

Hedgehogs are solitary, tolerating one another only during courtship and copulation and until the young are old enough at four to seven weeks to disperse from the nest. There are one to three annual litters of 1 to 11 offspring, with gestation lasting 31 to 42 days. The young are blind and helpless and have soft scattered white spines at birth that are replaced in three to five days by darker permanent spines. Western European hedgehogs can curl into a ball by 11 days after birth. Females will sometimes eat their offspring if the nest is disturbed soon after birth, and males will attack and eat young hedgehogs of the same species. They have a life span of up to seven years.

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Hedgehogs range throughout Eurasia south of the taiga and tundra (excluding Japan and the Tibetan Plateau) into Asia Minor and the Arabian Peninsula, most of Africa (excluding tropical rainforest), and various portions of India. The western European hedgehog inhabits forest margins, grasslands, scrub, hedgerows, and suburban gardens. It also has been introduced into New Zealand. The desert hedgehog (Hemiechinus aethiopicus) survives in the extremely arid Sahara and on the Arabian Peninsula, where populations are concentrated around oases and vegetated wadis.

Hedgehogs comprise a subfamily (Erinaceinae) of family Erinaceidae, which also includes the moonrat and the gymnures (subfamily Galericinae) of Southeast Asia and the Philippines. The name hedgehog can more broadly be applied to all species in this family. Hedgehogs are closely related to gymnures. Together the hedgehogs and gymnures comprise the family Erinaceidae, the only living family in the order Erinaceomorpha. The evolutionary relationship of this family to other mammals, particularly shrews, solenodons, moles, golden moles, and tenrecs, is unresolved.

Guy Musser

Hedgehog | Small Mammal, Nocturnal Habits & Spines (2024)
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