When we think about hedgehogs we probably picture an English country lane flanked by hedgerows and adorable little spiny creatures snuffling around for the odd worm or beetle. We don’t readily associate them with the South African veld.
But we certainly do have hedgehogs (“krimpvarkies”) in Southern Africa, but alas not in the Western Cape. The Southern African hedgehog, Atelerix frontaiis , hangs out in the northern parts of our country and bordering countries. It is mainly brown-black with a distinct white band across its forehead from cheek to cheek.
Hedgehogs are small mammals with cute pointed faces and they are almost completely covered in spines, except for the face and belly. The spines are dark at the base, getting light to white at the tip. They are made of keratin (as are our nails and rhino horns). The spines are sharper than porcupine quills, so hedgehogs are prickly little critters. Their major defence against predators is to curl up into a tight ball with their noses tucked under the protective spines. But unfortunately this does not provide protection against people and their activities.
Southern African hedgehogs prefer savannah and grassland type habitats where there is lots of leaf litter and bushes in which to hide. They have had to adapt to increasing rural settlements, urbanisation and agriculture encroaching on their natural habitat and hence they often take refuge in suburban gardens. Of course human expansion brings increasing threats to hedgehogs, such as domestic pets, insecticides, poisons, roadkill, and hunting for bush meat, traditional medicine and the pet trade.
Hedgehogs are omnivorous, the bulk of their diet consisting of invertebrates such as beetles, grasshoppers, termites, slugs, snails, centipedes, moths and earthworms. They also consume birds’ eggs, mice, lizards, fungus and even dog food in domestic gardens. They are the ultimate eco-friendly pest control. Hedgehogs in your garden indicate a healthy environment with a variety of wildlife (and well-trained dogs).
Southern African hedgehogs are solitary, except for females rearing their young. Interestingly, they are also monogamous. Males and females only consort with one individual at a time, but they don’t stay together after mating. Their mating behaviour is quite comical. If a male fancies a female it could be a bit tricky to get past the spines if she is not willing. The male then circles the female – sometimes for days – until she is won over (or worn down) and allows him to mate with her.
The gestation period is around 35 days and the babies are born in summer. The average litter size is four hoglets. The new-born hoglets are small, naked and blind, weighing in at around 10g. The young are born with infant spines, which are dropped when they are a month old. They then grow their adult spines. Hoglets open their eyes two weeks after birth and begin to forage with their mother at six weeks. They reach reproductive maturity at around five months. Males are absent fathers, taking no part in raising the young.
Each individual typically has a small home range of 200-300 meters from the area it is living in, which is commonly a hole in the ground. They are nocturnal, spending most of the day underneath the cover of leaves, under bushes and in holes. They only come out at night to feed. They hibernate during the winter.
The IUCN Red Data list classifies this species as Least Concern, but it is extremely difficult to estimate their exact numbers because they stay hidden during the day and during winter. However it is thought that Southern African hedgehog numbers are declining for the reasons already mentioned.
Atelerix frontalis Image: ‘I Found a Hedgehog’ on Facebook
A citizen-science project emanating from Wits University enlisted the help of the public to try to get a fix on the numbers and distribution of our hedgehogs by reporting sightings. The project was called “I Found a Hedgehog” and it went some way towards mapping the distribution of this elusive little animal. But the project seems to have ended after 2015, so more recent data is lacking.
Image: Alex Meyer
Is this another species that is dwindling away unseen due to our relentless invasion of their habitat? We probably won’t know until one day we wonder “Where have all the hedgehogs gone”?