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Hedgehogs: Anatomy, Habitat & Lifespan

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

You may have, or know someone that has, a pet hedgehog, but they are also wild animals that are quite fascinating. This lesson will explore the wild hedgehog exploring their anatomy and behaviors, as well as where they can be found and how long they live.

What Is a Hedgehog?

Naming animals is a tricky business. You need a descriptive name that isn't too long. It seems like sometimes scientists get it right, like the aptly named red fox, hammerhead shark and silverback gorilla.

And then sometimes they don't. I bring you the hedgehog. It is neither a hedge nor a hog, and yet, put those two words together and you have a prickly mammal that is more closely related to moles than hogs.

A hedgehog drawing
hedgehog drawing

The hedgehog is a mammal belonging to the Erinaceidae family. You probably haven't heard of the Erinaceidae family, but its a group of animals with pointy noses and round bodies. The other group in that family, besides hedgehogs, are gymnures, which look like spineless hedgehogs.

There are over 15 different species of hedgehog, and they got their name because they can be found in garden hedges and they make hog-like noises. Hmm, maybe scientists got the name right after all! Now that you have a basic idea of what a hedgehog is, let's explore its anatomy, behavior, habitat and lifespan.

Hedgehog Anatomy and Behavior

Hedgehogs may be one of the oldest mammal groups, having remained relatively unchanged for around 15 million years. Their most distinguishable characteristic is their spines, which are modified hair made out of keratin, the same material as your hair and nails. Hedgehogs have 5,000 to 7,000 spines all over their body, with the exception of their underside, legs and face.

Looking at them, you might think hedgehog spines are the same as porcupine quills since they are both spiky structures used as protection. However, the spines of a hedgehog, unlike porcupine quills, are not barbed and do not come out easily. When frightened, the hedgehog rolls up into a ball, hiding its vulnerable head and belly, leaving the predator thousands of spines to contend with.

A hedgehog being held. Note, it is coming out of the ball shape
hedgehog ball

Hedgehogs are little fellas and measure from six to eight inches in length and weigh somewhere between less than one pound to three pounds, with their spines making up 35% of their weight.

Another neat feature of the hedgehog is its ability to hibernate, thus dropping its body temperature and reducing its metabolism in order to save energy and survive in colder regions or areas with minimal resources. While not all species hibernate, those that do usually begin the process in October or November and wake up in March or April.

Hedgehogs are burrowing creatures, and most are nocturnal. Their vision is poor, but their hearing is good, and their ability to smell is exceptional. Hedgehogs are omnivores, eating both meat and plants, but they will eat what is available to them, including worms, slugs, beetles, roots, fruit and even baby mice. They prefer to forage at night and have a voracious appetite, eating one-third of their total weight in a night.

Hedgehogs eat plants and animals
hedgehog eating

Finally, one last strange hedgehog behavior. When they find something with a strong smell, they will chew it, mix it with their saliva and then use their tongue to apply it all over their bodies. Scientists are not sure why they employ this behavior, called anointing, but some suggest it is a sort of odor camouflage, helping the hedgehog smell like whatever region they just stumbled into.

Habitat

While you might have a pet hedgehog, they are not native to North America. Hedgehogs are found in Europe, Africa and Asia. They have been introduced to other areas, like New Zealand, where they have wreaked havoc on native populations through competition and predation.

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