Adapted from an article by Dave Anderson, published in the New Hampshire Forest Journal.
Late night on a rural lane, a shadow darts from the side of the road. An oncoming car cannot stop in time, and causes the small crash that is the intersection of nature and our urban existence. Can we learn from this unfortunate incident?
Among the more common wild mammals found road-killed are slow-moving skunks and porcupines, which have unique natural defenses against predators. Scent glands and sharp quills make it unnecessary to run. They need only turn tail to deploy formidable defenses. Yet that strategy fails regularly in the glare of oncoming headlights. You’ve no doubt seen the result.
The prey mammals are ever-wary and quick. Mice, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and deer are well-adapted to dash, dart and dodge hungry predators, which can include the weasels, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, hawks and owls. While more agile and unpredictable in traffic, these prey species are also far more numerous, resulting in relatively frequent road kills.
More rarely are stealthy predators killed along rural back roads. Thus, when I recently spotted a mostly nocturnal, seldom-seen long-tailed weasel dead at the edge of the road, I stopped to investigate the woodland “who done it” mystery.
The soft brown and white pelage was not matted or wet but its beady black eyes had already begun to dim in death. Blood-tinged were its nostrils and its open mouth was filled with rows of puppy-sharp teeth for tearing flesh. The weasel’s furred tail was nearly as long as its narrow body. It wasn’t squished or flattened because it hadn’t been struck by a vehicle. The cause of death was even more obvious: Porcupine quills protruded from its neck, chest and front legs.
A large adult porcupine can have as many as 20,000 quills loosely attached to its skin. When cornered, special muscles erect an array of quills that dislodge easily and the porcupine tucks its head between its front legs or under protective cover while turning its rear to the threat and swinging its tail like a mace. Depending on the location of the wound and the size of the victim, quills can pass harmlessly out through a victim’s loose skin or may lodge painfully against bone or pierce muscles and vital organs, causing inevitable death.
While I was admiring the dead weasel, eventually moving it off the road and into some ferns, the local Road Agent — an occasionally prickly guy himself — stopped his official, red, municipal pickup truck. Noting a quizzical, amused smile, I showed him the roadside crime scene. I wondered aloud why such a handsome and elegant little predator would tangle with a large, slow and heavily-armored opponent. Did that weasel pick the fight? Did it intentionally stagger into the road to die?
With a classic New England accent, the Road Agent just shrugged and offered: “Why, he just messed ’round with somethin’ he shouldn’tah.” He jumped in his truck and roared off.
Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached through the Forest Society Web site at www.forestsociety.org.
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