As a country-dweller, porcupines are second on my list (after fishers) of Not Cool Local Animals, judged by the main criterion of how much they can hurt my dogs (link: to story of Jill vs. Fisher).
Porcupines are herbivorous rodents who are native to most of Canada and the western United States. They are each covered in around 30,000 sharp quills (actually modified hairs), which they release as a last-ditch defense when physically attacked by a predator. When we first moved to the DFC ranch, our dogs made the unfortunate decision to go after a porcupine; which, as thoroughly suburban canines, they had never encountered before, and as, well, just canines, they immediately believed they could eat. Let’s just say that the vet bill, which sets a seemingly reasonable rate of a buck per quill removed from your dog’s face, quickly balloons when there are hundreds of quills involved.
So, I’ve long thought porcupines’ painful, tenacious quills to be a problem. But researchers are now looking at their physical properties as a naturally derived alternative to surgical staples in humans. Current surgical staples injure tissues themselves when being applied; also, their curved structure can give infection a foothold. But modeling a new innovation on the porcupine quill might change everything. From KQED Science:
“North American porcupine quills pack a hidden punch: microscopic, backward-facing barbs.
Covering just the needle-like tip of the quills, the barbs make removing a quill difficult, because they flare out when pulled in the opposite direction. […]
Those barbs are the main attraction to [bioengineer and professor of medicine at Harvard, Jeff] Karp. He and his team ran experiments comparing a barbed quill to a barbless quill. They measured the forces required to insert and remove the quills.
The results show that the barbs are dual-functional.
“They’re reducing the penetration force and increasing the pullout force,” said Karp. “It’s pretty neat.”
The research team likens the ease with which a staple, barbed like a porcupine quill, could enter human flesh to slicing a tomato with a serrated knife (yay!). They’re also looking at creating these staples out of biodegradable material — if the staples’ main asset is their barbed stickiness, then I definitely don’t want a doctor to have to dig one out of me.
I always love it when we look to nature for solutions to our human problems. Mother Nature has had several million years to get things right, after all! And though I have always respected porcupines, I now have a new appreciation for them. If only I could get Jill and Samson on board, on both counts…