Porcupine and Flying Squirrel

Meet the rodents found at the Alaska Zoo, the North American porcupine and the flying squirrel. Back to animal directory.


north american porcupine

LIFE SPAN: 15 years in captivity.

RANGE: Porcupines are found across most of Alaska south of the Brooks Range. They are not found on the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska, but they are found in southwestern Alaska.

SIZE: North American porcupines reach 40 pounds as adults, with some variation. They are smaller than their 60-pound cousin, the African Crested Porcupine. Baby porcupines are called porcupettes and only weigh a few ounces at birth.

PHYSICAL FEATURES: Porcupines are covered over most of their bodies by quills, hair which has been adapted and modified for protection with strong shafts and black tips which are covered in tiny barbs. The barbs spread when the quill enters skin and they act as treble hooks, digging their way further in while not easily pulled out. Quills are touch receptors, insulators and they increase buoyancy. Porcupines have an excellent sense of smell, average hearing and their eyesight is average to poor.

FOOD: Porcupines eat berries and leaves and twigs in the summer, while feeding on the inner bark of trees in the winter.

BEHAVIOR: Porcupines are members of the rodent family. They must gnaw on wood and other items to keep their front incisors short. Upper and lower incisors have an orange enamel layer which is thought to be a strengthening layer for gnawing. Females give birth to one porcupette per pregnancy, a rare trait among other rodents. Porcupettes are born with quills that harden within hours of birth upon contact with the air. Porcupines are usually solitary. Predators include lynx, great horned owls and larger mammals. If a predator flips a porcupine over, they can attack through the belly and avoid the quills (no quills on belly).

CONSERVATION: Porcupines are stable and common throughout their range. They are considered a delicacy in some areas of Alaska.

Flying squirrel

Check out this video by Nat Geo WILD showing the flying squirrel, a species common in Alaska but not commonly seen!

LIFE SPAN: Few live past age 4 in the wild and the mortality rate for flying squirrels ages 1 to 2 is about 50%. In captivity, they can live to the amazing age of 12 to 13 years old.

RANGE: Flying squirrels reside throughout most of the forested areas in Alaska. In the forests they live in, they require a complexity which includes areas to den and areas to feed. In older growth forests, they will den in tree cavities left behind by rot and animal activities, like holes enlarged by woodpeckers. In the boreal forests of Interior Alaska, they den inside branch tangles called witch's brooms. Their dens are off the ground, south facing and have chambers inside.

SIZE: Average weight, 4.9 ounces. Average length 12 inches.

PHYSICAL FEATURES: The flying squirrel is a gliding mammal incapable of true flight. Their patagia (skin folds) found on each side stretch between front and back legs and form a gliding membrane. This is a nocturnal species, hence the large eyes for gathering light in dark conditions. They have distinct, reddish-orange eye shine.

FOOD: They are highly omnivorous. They eat mushrooms, a variety of plants, seeds, insects and other forms of meat.

BEHAVIOR: During the coldest parts of winter, flying squirrels will retreat far into their dens inside the brooms (branch tangles caused by tree rust). They do not hibernate, but rather go into a state of torpor (deep sleep).

CONSERVATION: Populations are stable in Alaska. The biggest threat they face is the loss of forest habitat, particularly larger trees interspersed in open areas. If clear cutting occurs with no larger trees retained, the squirrels have no way to easily travel.