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What’s white and white and prickly all over? An albino porcupine, of course

Last modified: 9/19/2015 12:06:54 AM
When Susan Lichty saw a small white animal in the grass next to the driveway of her Lempster home Monday evening, she knew what it was. Except, it turns out, she didn’t.

“I saw an animal, a white animal, and I thought at first it was a cat. Then I saw the way it was lumbering along, and I knew it was not a cat,” said Lichty, who as a member of her town’s conservation commission and a land steward for the New Hampshire Society for the Preservation of Forests is familiar with a lot of wildlife.

She hopped out of the car and used her phone to film what turned out to be a full-grown albino porcupine, white as snow except for a small dark path of quills near its tail, munching away happily on flowers and grass.

“It was definitely an albino, with red eyes. I was able to watch it for quite some time before it walked away,” she said. “It was cute.”

Porcupines are common in New Hampshire woods, but it’s rare for them to be albino. Rare, but not unknown.

“This is the third albino porcupine I’ve heard of this year,” said Patrick Tate, a wildlife biologist for New Hampshire Fish and Game, in response to a query from the Monitor. “I can’t talk about how rare they are . . . but in my career, eight years, this is the seventh or eighth report I’ve heard.”

In fact, Lichty says, she saw an albino porcupine a few years ago, many miles from her house. At that time, she had her dogs with her, so she didn’t stop and investigate.

Animals become albino because of a genetic defect that cuts the production of melanin, a pigment that gives color to skin and hair. Being albino is bad for a prey species such as porcupines because it makes it harder for them to hide from predators. Melanin is also important in the development of the retina, so albino creatures often have poor eyesight.

Albino porcupines face another drawback: Melanin makes their quills hard and gives them one-way barbs, meaning that albino porcupines have less-dangerous quills.

In the book Porcupines: The Answer Guide, from Johns Hopkins University Press, author Uldis Roze wrote that there’s no good data about the frequency of albinism among North American porcupines, but that the species’ social organization can compensate for the drawback.

“Porcupines defend each other, whether albino or normally pigmented, (because) they carry a species-specific warning odor. If the albino porcupine’s warning odor remains intact, it may survive on the reputation of its better-armed relatives,” Roze wrote.

Watch Lichty’s video at 

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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