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So how do porcupines mate? My zoologist roommates give me the unsatisfying explanation that they put their needles down during the act. But I'm convinced that even with needles down mating for male porcupines must be a very painful experience. --Jean Francois Tremblay, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Well, one account of porcupine romance (in North American Porcupine, Uldis Roze, 1989) does begin this way: "Somewhere ahead, a porcupine is screaming." However, it's not what you think. The screaming porcupine is a female letting an ardent male know she's not in the mood. Male porcupines may give vent to the occasional scream as well, but it's from frustration, not pain: the female is only sexually receptive 8-12 hours per year.

Porcupine sex is not the exercise in S&M you might imagine but it does have its kinky aspects. I quote from Roze: "Perhaps the strangest aspect of the interaction is male urine-hosing of the female. The male approaches on his hind legs and tail, grunting in a low tone. His penis springs erect. He then becomes a urine cannon, squirting high-pressure jets of urine at the female. Everything suggests the urine is fired by ejaculation, not released by normal bladder pressure. . . . In less than a minute, a female may be thoroughly wetted from nose to tail."

So much for foreplay. If the female decides now is the time, she hoists up her rump a bit and raises her tail, the underside of which is quill-less, and curves it up over her back, covering the quills thereon and exposing her genitalia. The male then approaches in a gingerly manner from the rear, walking on his hind legs and taking care to touch nothing with his forepaws but the safe part of the tail. The relevant apparatus having been lined up, docking occurs, followed by "violent orgasm" as the male unloads a year's worth of jism. The act lasts 2-5 minutes and may be repeated several times during the half-day window of opportunity.

All in all it makes me think my first time during college maybe wasn't so bad. But the porcupines probably like it just fine, Ms. Porcupine especially. As our author notes, "the female cannot be raped." If she doesn't like the looks of one of her suitors, a swipe with her tail will cool his ardor fast.

It is also worth noting that the tip of the porcupine penis is covered with small spines or bumps, something humans can duplicate only through the use of certain exotic brands of prophylactic. "Undoubtedly the structures add something to the female's sensation during coitus," it says here, "but it is not known whether they help induce orgasm." Maybe it's not. But I find it interesting that once things get rolling the female is insatiable and will mate until the male is sexually exhausted.

The real problem for a male porcupine is not getting intimate with the female but surviving the bar fights with his male rivals beforehand. Researcher Roze reports coming upon the scene of an interporcupine slugfest where three males had fought it out for the favors of one female. The ground was littered with nearly 1,500 quills and a few more could be seen in the nose of the apparent victor. How much easier to be a male human, where all you have to do to ensure reproductive success is buy a Mercedes.

WHAT GOES DOWN MUST COME UP

You erred in describing honey as "bee vomit" [March 13]. Strictly speaking it is bee regurgitation. Regurgitation is the voluntary bringing up of nutrients. Vomiting is involuntary. --Marty, Chicago

If it looks like vomit, walks like vomit, and quacks like vomit, I say it's vomit. My trusty American Heritage Dictionary, I'm happy to say, backs me up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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