An African hedgehog is a great animal for school education programs. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

If you’re ever hanging out with a hedgehog, there are a few things you might notice. Despite their spiky look, hedgehogs are actually smooth to the touch if their spines are relaxed and laying flat against their back. They will usually walk around pretty slowly, sniffing constantly as they go, but if they are scared, they can run pretty fast- up to 6.5 feet per second! Most of the time, if you’re hanging out with a hedgehog, they’re sleeping. They’re nocturnal and African hedgehogs like the one pictured above will sleep 18 hours a day, during active months. Still, the 6 hours they’re awake can be a lot of fun. This little hedgehog likes to run around on her exercise wheel.

Hedgehogs are covered with up to 7,000 spines, which is quite a handy adaptation. Each spine has its own tiny set of muscles to raise it straight up if they are startled or to relax it back down when the perceived threat is past. This reflex is so strong that a European hedgehog in the middle of hibernation (when their heart rate drops from 150 to 18 beats per minute and their temperature drops from 93.2 to 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit) will still raise its spines if they are disturbed, even without waking up. To avoid danger, hedgehogs will also roll up into a ball, with their face hidden by their protective spines. This is quite effective. One of the only predators of the European hedgehog is a badger. The only major predator of the African hedgehog is the Verreaux eagle, which will pick it up in its talons, carry it high in the sky and then drop it to get past its defense.

Their spines are not just for defense. For example, hedgehogs are one of the few animals that can eat adders, because adder fangs are shorter than hedgehog spines, so the hedgies are protected from the adders’ venomous bite. Their spines will also absorb the shock if they climb over an obstacle and roll down the other side.

Hedgehogs are born with their spines, but they are wrapped up under a layer of skin, so they don’t hurt the sow when the young are being born (female hedgehogs are called sows, males are boars and the young are hoglets). Hoglets will recognize their mom by scent. Sows are very efficient reproducers. If their den is disturbed within a few days of birth, the sow will eat her young. It’s actually a very practical thing to do. The young will not survive being moved if they are only a few days old, but if she eats them, then she can gain enough energy to breed again. If the hoglets are over a week old when their den is disturbed, she will carry her young to a new den in her mouth.

In Europe, hedgehogs have a pretty close relationship to their English people-friends. People will frequently leave out bread and milk to attract hedgehogs to their yard because they are very helpful and eat garden pests. They are also very cute and fun to watch. Of course, this state of friendship wasn’t always the case. In 1566, they were considered vermin and a 3 pence reward was offered for every hedgehog killed. The same reward was offered for anyone catching a hedgehog milking a cow, as they were believed to be stealing milk from cows at night. If that sounds crazy to you, I can understand why-these animals are not very large. One thought for why this myth existed is because hedgies are often found near cows because they eat the insects that live in cow dung. Another idea is that in the early morning, cows’ udders are full and sometimes the cows can be found lying on the ground. If they leak, hedgehogs might lap it up. A few years ago, one cow was inspected and had a teat that was damaged in a way consistent with hedgehog teeth. But this is probably not a very common occurrence. Today, far from offering a reward for dead hedgehogs, the law actually states that it is illegal to kill a hedgehog with a machine gun or to catch a hedgehog using a tape recorder. (??? Your guess is as good as mine.)

While I’m poking fun at things people used to believe, in the 1658 book “History of four footed beasts and serpents” by Topsel, the following things were believed to be remedies from hedgehog:

-it cured leprosy

-their dried rib skin would help those with colick

-hedgehog ashes cured boils

-powdered hedgehog skin stopped hair from falling out

-using burning hedgehogs as a fumigant “by God’s help” would cure urinary stones

-a hedgehog’s right eye, fried in linseed oil and drunk from a brass vessel, improved ones night vision and

-hedgehog fat “stayeth the flux of the bowels.”

And with that, I will leave you with one last picture of an African hedgehog:

African hedgehog

An African hedgehog. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.