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6 Smart Ways Hedgehogs Protect Themselves

6 Smart Ways Hedgehogs Protect Themselves

The purpose of this blog is to share general information and is written to the author's best knowledge. It is not intended to be used in place of veterinary advice. For health concerns, please seek proper veterinary care.

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When looking at pictures of hedgehogs, it is difficult to believe that these spiky little creatures survive in the wild against all of Mother Nature’s whims; but survive they do!

They are well adapted to their locations, competing with the other species in a hostile world. But how do hedgehogs protect themselves from predators and the environment?

Hedgehogs have several defensive strategies to protect themselves; the most well-known is to curl up into a spiny ball. Before curling up, hedgehogs will try and intimidate predators by vocalizing and posturing or running away. They are nocturnal, build burrows, and hibernate to avoid the cold.

Although most would consider hedgehogs to be cute and harmless, they are, in fact, well adapted to survival. Hedgehogs have evolved efficient defensive mechanisms, but how do they protect their offspring?

What environmental threats do they face? And just what predators will try and eat a hedgehog?

The Ecology, Morphology, and Behavior of Hedgehogs Protecting Themselves

Hedgehogs belong to the Erinaceidae family of mammals. There are five genera and seventeen species of hedgehog occurring in natural ranges across Asia, Africa, and Europe.

In the wild, these insectivorous omnivores utilize a variety of habitats, including deserts (and semi-deserts), grasslands, meadows, rocky areas, and woodlands, depending on the continent.

Within these varying habitats, hedgehogs are exposed to many types of predators and environmental pressures.

To survive, hedgehogs have adapted defensive mechanisms, which allow them to escape, evade, and deter predators.

Hedgehogs have also evolved to cope with harsh temperature extremes and food shortages.

Some strategies are behavioral changes, while others are morphological features.

Hedgehog Defensive Strategies 101

Due to the range of animals that prey on hedgehogs, hedgehogs have several anti-predator behaviors and adaptations. Below are some of the defensive strategies employed.

1 – Hedgehogs Roll into a spiky Ball

Starting with the most well-known of the defenses. When hedgehogs are threatened, cannot escape, or evade a threat, they curl up into a tight ball.

Specialized circular muscles facilitate a hedgehog’s curling motion. These muscles allow the hedgehog to tuck its vulnerable head and tail inwards.

These muscles also prevent predators from opening a hedgehog out of its curled-up ball.

This curling action pushes the spiky extrusions covering their backs outward. These spines (quills) are hardened hairs that grow to a sharp point (made of keratin).

Hedgehogs possess between 5 000 and 7 000 quills. These quills interlock to create dense spiny armor.

When a predator tries to bite, claw, or pick up a curled-up hedgehog, these quills poke the animal, causing them to reconsider their attempts at catching a hedgehog.

This method of defense is effective against many predators who may find it too much effort even to try and catch a hedgehog.

It does, however, have some downsides to it, namely:

  • Once curled up, a hedgehog’s mobility is diminished, so escape is less of an option.
  • Some predators can bite through/around the spines (e.g., birds and reptiles).
  • If a venomous snake is a predator, this spiky ball is not very effective.

Although hedgehogs have a tolerance and resistance towards snake venom, a large enough, potent dose may give the snake the opportunity it needs.

  • A bird of prey can lift the hedgehog and drop it from high up.

Hedgehogs also sleep with their quills “engaged,” protecting themselves from opportunistic predators.

2 – Hedgehogs Use Vocalizing and Other Posturing as a Deterrent

Before curling up into a spiky ball, hedgehogs hiss, click, and posture to intimidate a would-be predator. Under dire conditions, hedgehogs are even known to scream (particularly when hurt).

By creating a fuss, making themselves look more prominent, and stomping their feet, a hedgehog will attempt to make a predator think twice before trying to take a bite.

They fundamentally say, “I am bigger than you think, it will be more effort to eat me than you want to expend. You should look for another food source”.

3 – Hedgehogs Are Nocturnal

Hedgehogs have poor eyesight but a superb sense of smell, and acute hearing, which lends itself to a nocturnal lifestyle.

By moving around at night, hedgehogs improve their hunting success (digging up worms and catching other insects).

They also reduce the number of predators with which they come into contact.

The night air is also cooler in temperature, so hedgehogs who live in hot climate areas expend fewer resources moving around at night.

4 – Hedgehogs Rely on Camouflage for Protection

The adage “prevention is better than cure” holds true in this regard.

There is a reason why most hedgehogs are brown, white, or grey. These colors assist hedgehogs in blending into their environments.

This camouflage provides hedgehogs with their first line of defense. By avoiding detection in the first place, hedgehogs do not need to postulate or curl up into a ball.

This is especially beneficial for predators such as snakes and birds, who will either not be deterred by a hedgehog’s defensive displays, or who can surprise attack a hedgehog.

If a hedgehog is surprised, it may not have enough time to curl up or raise its quills, allowing the predator to capture them with greater ease.

An additional form of camouflage implemented by hedgehogs is by “anointing” themselves.

When they feel threatened or encounter a foreign scent, hedgehogs will lick and chew the substance and then spit their smell enriched saliva over their quills and bodies.

This behavior assists the hedgehog in masking its smell from potential predators by “blending-in” with the environment.

This self-anointing is, however, still debated in terms of function and purpose. Some believe that it may be a natural part of hedgehog grooming.

5 – Hedgehogs Evade Danger By Running Away

When faced with a life and death situation, most mammals enter a fight or flight situation.

The same is true for hedgehogs.

When faced with danger, another pathway of defending themselves is flight. If a hedgehog feels that it would be better to run away than stay and fight, it will do so.

Classic examples of this are when birds of prey are circling above or snakes are prowling about. If a hedgehog senses the danger, they may duck into the closest burrow available.

6 – Hedgehogs May Even Nip/Bite to Protect Themselves

Although not a common practice, hedgehogs may, under specific circumstances, nip and bite at attackers to try and persuade them to leave the hedgehog alone.

This is not a primary or frequently used method of protecting themselves; it is simply an option available to the hedgehog.

How Do Hedgehogs Protect Their Young?

Adult hedgehogs put their stiff, sharp quills to effective use against predators, but how do they protect young hedgehogs (hoglets/piglets)?

Mothers will protect their offspring from predators and even other male hedgehogs. This protection is in the form of hissing and other displays to discourage would-be attackers.

Baby hedgehogs are born with quills (around 100 at first), covered in a type of “padding,” to prevent injuries to the mom during the birthing process.

After a day or two of birth, the padding (the skin on the hoglet’s back is filled with fluid, which engorges to cover the spines) dissipates, and the quills are pushed through the skin.

So from birth, hedgehogs have a degree of protection.

After around a month, the quills of hoglets have hardened enough for the mom to begin taking the younglings out on foraging expeditions.

During these expeditions, moms teach their offspring how to forage. Should a hoglet become separated, they vocalize (similar to a bird sound) to attract their mom’s attention.

She then looks for the hoglet and escorts it back to the group.

Before heading out on expeditions, hoglets remain at the burrow, hidden from predators. They will venture out of the nest and explore as they grow, but generally not too far from safety.

If the burrow has been compromised (after a week or longer from giving birth), the mother hedgehog will carry her hoglets (in her mouth) to a new location.

Maternal care only lasts for around six to eight weeks, after which the hoglets are big enough to head out on their own.

There are generally only around two to three hoglets that become juvenile hedgehogs. Within the first five or so days of giving birth, if the female is disturbed, she will likely eat her babies.

How Do Hedgehogs Protect Themselves from Environmental Pressures?

Not only do hedgehogs need to survive against the numerous predators they come into contact with, but they also need to survive the elements.

Hedgehogs are omnivores, with a specific focus on arthropods (insectivores).

They are, however, not picky eaters; their diet includes beetles, birds’ eggs and chicks, carrion, caterpillars, earthworms, earwigs, millipedes, slugs, snails, small rodents, snakes, and scorpions.

Certain species will also gladly eat roots, grass, leaves, and fruit. This generalist feeding adaption results in an abundance of food available in most habitats.

As a small mammal, heat loss is a vitally important consideration for hedgehogs.

The surface area to volume ratio in a small-bodied creature means that they need to eat more food (relative to their body size) than a larger-bodied animal.

Hedgehogs are warm-blooded, which means they produce heat through metabolizing food. Due to their small size, hedgehogs can only fit a limited amount of food into their bellies.

This amount of food will be quickly metabolized, and more needs to take its place. This process equates to hedgehogs eating many small meals throughout the day.

To accommodate this principle, hedgehogs will select higher-value food sources, i.e., food that is higher in proteins. This “better quality” food means that they receive the most protein.

Behavioral Responses to Environmental Conditions

Additional to the selection of high protein food, hedgehogs have behavioral responses.

By hiding in burrows, they help to insulate themselves and reduce the amount of heat lost to the environment.

Some species of hedgehog undergo hibernation to avoid cold winter conditions, where food scarcity is a concern for survival.

This is particularly important for species occurring in the Northern Hemisphere.

Hedgehogs’ nocturnal habits also protect them from harsh sunlight and overheating, especially in hot climates.

Hedgehogs in these areas hide during the heat of the day by rocks or in burrows.

In drought conditions, hedgehogs may also enter a period of aestivation (summer sleep) until conditions improve.

Hedgehogs in the Wild, What Are Their Predators?

Although hedgehogs are well-defended creatures, a hungry predator will not pass up the opportunity to try and snack on one (although the predator may change its mind when the hedgehog resists).

The type of predators a hedgehog faces is determined chiefly by where the hedgehog is located.

In the United Kingdom, the quintessential predators of hedgehogs are badgers. In Europe, foxes, and birds, while in Africa, many species may attack a hedgehog.

Some of the most common predators of hedgehogs include:

Felids

Felines are apex predators; with their stealthy movements and their mixture of diurnal, nocturnal, and crepuscular habits, they often encounter hedgehogs.

The list of felids that may eat hedgehogs includes:

  • Lions are the largest of the African Big Cats. Although they don’t usually bother with hedgehogs, these cats have the bite force and strength to eat a hedgehog.
  • Although smaller than lions, Leopards are immensely strong, and a hungry enough leopard may take its chances with a hedgehog.
  • Although house cats are too small to attack adult hedgehogs, they may still target hoglets.

However, this would not be a common occurrence as house cats usually investigate and then ignore hedgehogs.

Hyenas

Hyenas are renowned for being scavengers; however, they are capable hunters too. Hyenas have some of the most potent bite forces, able to crush bones at carcasses.

Although a hyena may not specifically target hedgehogs as a habit, they will try and eat it if they find one.

Canids

Dogs (canids) are a widespread group of carnivores. They are opportunistic and will try (even if it is only once!) their luck at eating a hedgehog.

Some species that may try and eat a hedgehog include:

  • Foxes, although small, are likely to hunt hoglets with their acute sense of smell.
  • Jackals are similar to foxes; however, they are tenacious enough to attempt eating an adult hedgehog as well.
  • Wolves are the biggest of the dogs. They have more than enough bite force to kill an adult hedgehog. They may also dig up burrows to get to hoglets.
  • Domesticated dogs are more than likely to try at least once to eat a hedgehog. This is dependent on the breed of dog (e.g., German Shepards, Jack Russels, and Ridgebacks).

Birds

Aside from badgers and snakes, birds of prey are the other significant threat to hedgehogs.

Due to their keen eyesight, intelligence, and ability to fly and remain undetected, predatory birds can surprise hedgehogs, which may prevent them from initiating their defensive mechanisms.

Birds’ beaks are also an advantage against hedgehogs’ armor.

Birds that may eat hedgehogs include:

  • Eagles are the pinnacle predatory birds with powerful beaks and talons that make little work of catching and eating a hedgehog.
  • Hawks, Falcons, and Kites, although smaller than eagles, are still threats to hedgehogs. A well-known hedgehog eater is the Black Kite.
  • Owls are fierce nocturnal hunters, which brings them into the same period of activity as hedgehogs. Giant Eagle owls frequently eat African hedgehogs.
  • Although Crows (and Ravens) are not typical birds of prey, they are superbly intelligent and have powerful beaks to get around hedgehogs’ defenses.

Badgers and Mongooses

One of the primary predators of hedgehogs is badgers.

These mighty hunters have the strength, dexterity, and tenacity required to uncurl a hedgehog to get at their soft belly.

Mongooses, stoats, ferrets, weasels, and even rats will probably not fare well against an adult hedgehog but will often target a nest of hoglets while mom is away feeding.

Reptiles

Reptiles are another primary predator of hedgehogs. Using their “heat vision,” they can detect foraging adult hedgehogs and nests of hoglets alike.

Two groups of reptiles likely to hunt hedgehogs are:

  • Snakes are by far the most likely of these two reptile groups to target hedgehogs.

Snakes are ambush predators, waiting for unaware animals and then incapacitating them with venom or flinging coils around them to allow for asphyxiation.

Although hedgehogs are resistant to venom, they can bring a hedgehog down if a sizeable enough snake delivers a substantial dose to the face or feet region.

  • Although less likely to be as big of a threat as snakes, Lizards will still raid burrows and eat hoglets (in particular monitor lizards).

Humans

Humans, as apex predators on this planet, also pose a threat to hedgehogs. Some of the ways humans predate hedgehogs is by:

  • Harvesting them for traditional medicines.
  • Killing, collecting, and using hedgehogs as decorations.
  • Removing hedgehogs from the wild (both legally and illegally) to be sold in the pet trade.
  • Roads and development are by far the worst way we humans “prey” on animals (not only hedgehogs).

By moving into an area that was once a habitat for wildlife, we take over and push the natural inhabitants out.

Another issue with roads is that when hedgehogs attempt to cross, many end up becoming roadkill.

Final Thoughts

Hedgehogs have several natural predators, including dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, and humans. They also, however, need to defend themselves from the elements (such as heat and cold).

To do this, hedgehogs have a range of adaptations, including burrowing, hibernating, running and hiding, postulating, and curling into a spiky ball, as needed.

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