Posted by: Wild Instincts | February 9, 2014

Winter’s Unseen Victims

No one in the Northwoods can deny this winter of 2013-14 has been challenging, if not just down right brutal.
Unrelenting Polar Vortex after Polar Vortex has forced us to move patients that should be in outside enclosures to inside set ups. Not only has the weather brought us more patients than normal, but it’s added to the work load of routine chores making it take longer than normal to care for said patients.
At least we can give our patients a warm place to come. What about all the wild animals out there in this weather?
For the most part animals are adapted quite ingeniously to their environments and have ways of coping with this weather in short bursts. When it drags on for what seems like forever, then problems will develop.
Animals will starve and die. It happens. We’ve seen the reports on TV asking to be on the look out for starving deer. Starving turkeys are being reported.
What about the victims we can’t see? Those that most people don’t even think about.
Recently we admitted a porcupine. Someone had found it in a snow bank, mostly unconscious. She took it in and even knowing she was breaking the law, tried to care for it. After two days, she finally decided to get it help.
When the porcupine arrived, it was unconscious and severely hypothermic. Its temperature didn’t even register on the thermometer! It sounds like it had been that way from the beginning. Two days of hypothermia is hard to overcome. In the end, despite our best efforts, the porcupine passed away. Shortly before she passed away she expelled an unborn fetus.
Gestation for porcupines is about 210 days. They breed in Oct-Nov. We generally see young porcupettes in early April. Taking factors into account, it appears her unborn was about 8 weeks away from partuation, probably about 154 days in its development, putting it into the third trimester.
Presently, not much is known about the various diseases that affect porcupines. Recently, cases of hepatic lipidosis (HL) have been reported in captive North American porcupine in zoos. Whether the HL incidence in captivity is comparable to that in wild porcupine populations is not presently known.
Hepatic lipidosis and pregnancy toxemia have been reported in humans, deer, cows, and ewes. In women, hepatic dysfunction complicates about 3% of pregnancies and tends to occur in the last trimester of gestation. Similarly, sheep on a low-energy diet in late gestation frequently develop pregnancy toxemia and HL. It is quite possible that this porcupine developed complications from her pregnancy in a brutal winter requiring massive energy demands.
In the Northwoods, many species carry their unborn during the winter months so they can be born, grow during a time of more abundant food, and be ready to survive their first winter.
When winters are harsh, unborn may be resorbed to save the life of the mother by decreasing energy demands. It takes a great deal of energy to carry offspring in the womb as well as the immediate demands after birth during nursing.
Following difficult winters, there may be a decrease in young born for this reason. They are the unseen victims of the winter until spring when the forest has less little ones running around and their absence is noticed.
Deer may abort and resorb some of their offspring, resulting in one fawn instead of two or three.
In porcupine cases, they are only in estrus for 8-12 hours once per year resulting in only one young per year.
Had this porcupine died quietly in the woods, one would probably have thought only of this one victim of winter and not even been aware of its unseen victim.

Fetal porcupine approximately 6-8 weeks from birth.

Fetal porcupine approximately 6-8 weeks from birth.

Hair developing on head.

Hair developing on head.


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