Swahili Name: Kalunguyeye
Scientific Name: Atelerix albiventris
Size: 7 to 9 inches long
Weight: 1 to 2 pounds
Lifespan: 10 years in captivity
Habitat: Variety of climates and terrains
Gestation: Between 30 and 40 days
Predators: Carnivores, some large birds
“Small enough to fit in your hands but too prickly to hold” is a good description of the hedgehog. Though small, it is by no means defenseless. Thousands of stiff, sharp spines-harder and sharper than those of a porcupine-cover the animal’s back and sides, like a pincushion filled with needles.
Even though spines, or quills, provide the hedgehog with effective protection, the animal’s most striking characteristic is its practice of curling up into a tight ball, with its spines sticking out in all directions. When the hedgehog rolls up, a special, highly developed circular muscle that runs along the sides of the body and across the rump and neck contracts and forms a “bag” into which the body, head and legs are folded. The hedgehog curls up if disturbed or frightened-only the strongest predators, such as the badger, can pry it open. It also sleeps in this position, so is rarely caught unprotected.
Hedgehogs inhabit a wide range across a variety of climates and terrains in East Africa. Although not found in the Americas, other species of hedgehogs live in different parts of Africa, Europe and Asia, as well as in New Zealand, where they have been introduced. Their distribution on the different continents is, however, very local. They must have dry shelters on well-drained soil and a good supply of ground-dwelling insects and other invertebrates. Suburban Nairobi meets these habitat conditions, where hedgehogs are reported to be abundant.
A hedgehog uses a small home range with an approximate 120-yard radius from its nest. The nest is built in dry litter under tangles of hedge or bush, rock crevices, termite mounds or under buildings. The hedgehog chatters, snorts or softly growls if its range is invaded by another animal.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal and sleep most of the day. Some species hibernate in winter and others sleep or remain inactive during the dry, hot summer. Scientists report that before these periods, hedgehogs acquire a thick deposit of fat to live off while inactive. Though in some areas temperature changes seem to trigger the inactivity, the availability and quality of food are also factors. In Nairobi, hedgehogs are rarely seen during the height of the dry season, but are very conspicuous during and after rainy seasons, when insects are abundant.
The hedgehog wakes up at dusk, and as a solitary animal, usually begins its nocturnal activities alone. It uses regular pathways, and toddling along on its short legs, starts searching for food. A hedgehog will eat the equivalent of one-third of its body weight in one night. Its favorite foods are insects, earthworms, snails and slugs, making it a welcome guest in many suburban gardens-it is even kept as a pet in some. The hedgehog varies its diet more than many other insectivores and consumes a wide range of animal and vegetable foods. It is known to eat eggs, small mammals, ground-nesting birds, frogs, reptiles, fruit, fungi and roots. Although not completely immune to insect toxins and snake venoms, hedgehogs have enough resistance to allow them to eat poisonous snakes.
Caring for the young
Two to 10 (but an average of five) young are born in a litter. Their eyes open at 2 weeks. They are covered with soft white spines, which are shed and replaced by permanent ones at about 1 month. By then the circular muscle is developed, and they can then roll themselves into a ball. The mother suckles them for about 40 days. Toward the end of the suckling period, they accompany the mother when she forages for food and begin to eat solid food. Soon after the young are weaned, the family breaks up, and each goes its separate way. Young hedgehogs become sexually mature at about 1 year and are capable of producing two to three litters a year.
Even though protected somewhat by their spines, hedgehogs are prey for carnivores and some large birds, especially Verreaux’s eagle owls.
Did you know?
Hedgehogs perform a courtship ritual in which the male walks round and round a female in estrus, often for hours at a time. After mating, they usually go their own ways.
Superstitions about this little animal abound in East Africa. Some people believe that seeds rubbing on a hedgehog before planting will produce abundant harvests. The skin and spines are also popular fertility charms.
African Wildlife Foundation.