Porcupines are not known for their ability to save people from pain: an unfortunate encounter with their fearsome array of around 30,000 spines is usually followed by an uncomfortable trip to the hospital. Once they have punctured the flesh, the spines are extremely difficult to remove, thanks to a series of backwards-facing snares (indicated by arrows in the image) that act in a similar way to barbs on a fish hook. However, what was not understood until now is that these same barbs also dramatically reduce the pressure needed to penetrate skin in the first place – by over 50 per cent compared to smooth spines. Imitating this design could help to develop less painful hypodermic needles and other medical instruments that need to be inserted through the skin. So in the future, the spiky porcupine could acquire a reputation for help rather than harm.
Written by Jan Piotrowski