Long before Beatrix Potter unleashed the twinkly-eyed hedgehog washerwoman Mrs. Tiggy-Winkles upon the world, children have been enamored by the spiny mammals. In fact, a carved toy hedgehog — presumably a prized possession — was found buried next to a child’s grave unearthed near Stonehenge dating back some 3,000 years. But the love for hedgehogs doesn’t stop when childhood does; one look at YouTube’s nearly 2.5 million videos featuring the prickly creatures points to the fact that we are a people obsessed with hedgehogs. Forget the Digital Age; future historians may just as well refer to this as the Hedgehog Age.
Unfortunately, as Daniel Allen of Keele University in Staffordshire, UK, points out, Britain's favorite mammals (named so by the Royal Society of Biology) are being threatened. In the 1950s, Britain had 30 million hedgehogs running around. Now? Under a million. Farming methods have led to a loss of habitat and a change in hedgehogs' diets, which largely explain the alarming drop in population. And busy roads don't help. It's estimated that more than 100,000 hedgehogs are killed by vehicles on Britain's roads every year.
Many in Britain are banding together — note the British Hedgehog Preservation Society — to help their prickly neighbors by providing feeding stations, making small holes in fences to allow them free access through gardens (thus keeping them off of streets) and being more cautious in their use of pesticides. It's all in the spirit of hedgehog love.
But love them as we do, what do we really know about hedgehogs?
Consider this your crash course on the quilled cuties.
1. The hedgehog was named for its unique foraging methods. They root through hedges seeking their prey — mostly insects, as well as worms, centipedes, bird eggs, snails, mice, frogs, and snakes — while emitting snorts, squeals and grunts. Like a hog, of the hedge … hence, “hedgehog.”
2. Shakespeare gave a nod to hedgehogs in “The Tempest” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” calling them “hedgepigs” and “urchins.”
3. The collective noun for a group of hedgehogs is "array" or "prickle."
4. There are 15 species of hedgehog; they are found in Europe, Asia, and Africa, but they have also been introduced into new areas such as New Zealand.
5. Importing hedgehogs in the United States can only be done at certain ports, and the animals must have proper permits. Importing them from New Zealand — or any region that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has designated as a place where foot-and-mouth disease exists — is forbidden. Smuggling hedgehogs is highly frowned upon.
Hedgehog importing recently made headlines in Iceland, where a resident imported the nation's first hedgehog. As the Iceland Monitor reports, Eszter Tekla Fekete has owned Bernie since 2015 and her father applied to have him imported in May 2016. After many tests and a four-week quarantine, he got the all-clear in November 2017.
6. Because they are considered wildlife, it's illegal to keep a hedgehog as a pet in many parts of the United States, including California, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Hedgehogs need a lot of special care to be kept as pets, and anyone considering doing so should do their research first.
7. The earliest known member of the family that includes hedgehogs lived about 58 million years ago. The smallest hedgehog ever, Silvacola acares, lived 52 million years ago in a rain forest in northern British Columbia. It was about 2 inches long.
8. Today’s hedgehogs measure roughly from 5 to 14 inches (plus a 1- to 2-inch tail), depending on the species.
9. The hedgehog can thank its spines for its signature look; they are 1-inch long modified hairs that cover the critters’ back and sides. The face, chest, belly, throat and legs are covered in fur, helping to give them the appearance of having tough-guy haircuts.
10. There are somewhere between 5,000 to 7,000 spines on an average adult hedgehog. (Kudos to whoever counted them.) They are neither poisonous nor barbed, and unlike the quills of a porcupine, the hedgehog's prickers stay firmly attached to the animal.
11. That said, they use their quills defensively, more like armor than projectiles. When threatened, hedgehogs roll up into a ball, thereby becoming an orb of hard-to-eat spines. This is how they sleep (which they do during the day, by the way).
12. Rolled into a ball is also how hedgehogs were employed by the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." PETA would not be pleased with the queen's use of live hedgehogs for croquet balls and flamingos for mallets, but fortunately the hedgehogs natural protection allowed them to scamper away, much to the queen's chagrin.
13. Hedgehogs can live for four to seven years in the wild, a relatively long time for animals of their size. Smaller species live two to four years (though longer in captivity).
14. Like opossums, hedgehogs have some natural immunity against snake venom, yet they will still succumb to it if stricken by a more virulent snake.
15. Hedgehogs take part in an odd behavior called “anointing” when they first come upon a new object or bit of food. They will lick the substance until a frothy saliva forms, and then they rub said spit onto their skin and spines. No one is quite sure why they do this; possibilities include making them taste less palatable to predators or as some type of olfactory camouflage.
16. Depending on the species, the gestation period is 35 to 58 days, and in the end produces a litter of five to six pups for smaller species and three to four pups for larger species.
17. Hedgehogs are loners; they generally only match up for mating (are you trying to picture that?) – moms kick the babes out of the nest sometime between four and seven weeks.
18. The most popular species of hedgehog that is kept as a pet is a hybrid of the four-toed hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris) and the North African hedgehog (A. algirus); these are usually referred to as African pygmy hedgehogs and are bred in the U.S. for the pet trade.
19. Hedgehogs get some of the same diseases that humans do, including cancer, fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease. A medical condition that only hedgehogs get, however, is balloon syndrome. This fun-sounding but actually serious condition involves air or gas trapped under the skin and the hedgehog grows in size. According to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, remedying it only involves a incision on the skin to release the air and then monitoring for any complications related to the collection of air in the first place.
20. Cute as they may be, hedgehogs can give humans a fungal skin infection caused by Trichophyton erinacei, also known as ringworm. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, major microbial infections associated with hedgehogs include bacteria such as Salmonella and Mycobacteria.
21. In 2006, McDonald’s launched a new design of McFlurry containers that are hedgehog-friendly. What? Yep. It seems that hedgehogs were consistently getting their heads stuck in the cups while licking up the last drops of McFlurry goodness, leading to many an untimely hedgehog death. (McDonald's, savior of hedgehogs? Who knew?)
22. Some people eat hedgehogs — but enough about that. A more amusing fact is that in 1981, a London potato chip maker launched a line of hedgehog "flavoured crisps" — and fortunately for hedgehogs everywhere, the potato chips were not actually flavored with hedgehog.
And on that note, bye bye! (Photo: Denis Defreyne/flickr)
This story was originally published in July 2014 and has been updated with new information.