Porcupines in our region: Winter lecture series at SUNY New Paltz continues

The Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership presented a free public lecture on February 16 entitled, “Porcupines in Our Presence,” with speaker Melissa Gillmer, head zookeeper at Trailsides Museum and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park. (photo by John Allen)

The best way to make friends with a porcupine? Offer the apple-loving critters a Red Delicious apple, which according to Melissa Gillmer, head keeper at Bear Mountain’s Trailside Museums and Zoo, is their preferred variety of one of their favorite foods. This nugget of information was one of many interesting facts about the porcupine offered during Gillmer’s presentation of “Porcupines in Our Presence,” the most recent talk in the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership’s winter lecture series, held last Thursday at SUNY New Paltz.

The winter lectures are co-sponsored by the SUNY New Paltz biology department, whose students make up some of the audience at each presentation. The Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership is a coordinated effort of local organizations to protect, maintain and restore the natural communities and native species of the northern Shawangunks. The Partnership is made up of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Nature Conservancy, the Mohonk Preserve, the Open Space Institute, the New York Natural Heritage Program, the New York State Museum, the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, the Cragsmoor Association, Friends of the Shawangunks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference.

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The free lecture series, which has been held every Thursday evening in February for nearly two decades now, reflects a broad spectrum of topics regarding biodiversity on the Ridge. The inaugural lecture this February was on glacial movement in the Hudson Valley with the second lecture about the revival of the American Chestnut tree cancelled due to snow.

Temperatures last Thursday were cold, but not severe enough to discourage approximately 200 people who came out to hear the hour-long lecture followed by time for Q&A. Gillmer utilized a slideshow and a nice, easy manner to illustrate her talk about porcupines, covering pretty much anything anyone could want to know about the quilled rodents.

Their dietary habits are vegetarian, supplemented by sources of salt wherever they can find it, including road salt and gnawing on tires. Their young, called “porcupets” (males) and “porcupettes” (females) arrive with soft quills that later harden. Porcupines have some 30,000 quills on their body, which gives them more than a few spares to replace the ones they use against predators along the way. When the animal feels threatened, it makes a “teeth-chattering” noise, Gillmer said, and will use a swat of its tail to protect itself.

Those tails come in handy for clinging to trees, where porcupines sleep out of reach of non-climbing predators. And how do the prickly porcupines mate? Very carefully, of course.

A highlight of the lecture was the introduction of Fanny Pine, a 16-year female resident of the Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain. Gillmer and staff at the facility care for previously injured or orphaned, non-releasable animals native to the Hudson Valley. Trailside is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., offering a nature trail with exhibits of native wildlife, a vernal pool active in the spring, natural history museums and views of the Hudson River.

Fanny Pine the porcupine bravely left the shelter of her carrying case briefly to nab some avocado laid out for her during the presentation, but soon went back into her sheltering box shielded by a black cloth. Porcupines are nocturnal, after all, and the lecture center has bright lights.

The final talk in the winter series will move the event to the SUNY Ulster campus in Stone Ridge on Thursday, February 23 from 7-8:30 p.m. in the College Lounge, Vanderlyn Hall, room 203. Plenty of parking is available. “Fire on the Ridge” will be a discussion of wildfires in the Gunks and the Biodiversity Partnership’s ongoing campaign to prevent them using managed burns. The talk will be led by Gabe Chapin, forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, and Hank Alicandri, director of Sam’s Point in Minnewaska State Park Preserve.

For more information about the lecture series and notice of any weather-related cancellations, visit www.MohonkPreserve.org.

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