Antibiotic Properties of Porcupine Quills

J Chem Ecol. 1990 Mar;16(3):725-34. doi: 10.1007/BF01016483.


Porcupine quills possess antibiotic properties. The antibiotic activity is associated with free fatty acids (but not neutral lipids) coating the quills. Extracts of quill fatty acids strongly inhibited the growth of six grampositive bacterial strains. No growth inhibition was observed against four gram-negative strains. Free fatty acids made up 18.6% of total quill lipids in samples collected in the summer, and 5.5% of total lipid in samples collected in the winter. The fatty acids were separated and identified (as the methyl esters) by gas-liquid chromatography and mass spectroscopy. Major components of a complex mixture included 14-methylpentadecanoic, 9-hexadecenoic, hexadecanoic, and 9-octadecenoic acids. It is suggested that porcupines benefit from the quill fatty acids: evidence from healed fractures of major skeletal components (35.1% incidence in 37 skeletons examined) suggests that porcupines fall relatively frequently from trees. Quill antibiotics may limit self-injury suffered in such falls.