Today, September 10, is Hedgehog Day, when lots of central New Zealand hedgehogs emerge from hibernation.
Most local hedgehogs start hibernating in early June and sleep until the ground warms up in early September. A curious thing is that male hedgehogs wake up about a month earlier than females, so most of the hedgehogs you see run over on the road this month will be males.
The same is true in Palmerston North, where a colleague of mine, John Parkes, spent two years studying the three-month hibernators there. While hibernating, the hedgehogs become stone cold, their breathing slows right down and their hearts almost stop beating.
In colder parts of the South Island, the hedgehogs spend longer asleep but, in winterless Northland, few hedgehogs hibernate. Some Kaitaia hedgehogs go on producing young all through the winter.
In Europe, winters are longer so the Swedish and Swiss hedgehogs must put on lots of fat to see them through six months' hibernation. As a result, they grow to twice the size and weight of our animals. Hibernation is dangerous for hedgehogs as many drown in their underground nests, or their cover is blown away and they die of exposure or hypothermia.
Predatory rats occasionally discover a hibernating hedgehog and eat it alive. The evolutionary process has done a cost-benefit analysis on hedgehog hibernation. It balances the risk of a hedgehog dying while hibernating or dying of starvation as the animal tries to scratch a living in the frost and snow.
Because hedgehogs eat some native animals, the Conservation Department has declared a fatwa on them. But not so in the United States, where they have become a popular pet. The Americans don't go for the common European hedgehog but for variously patterned and pigmy hedgehogs from Africa and Madagascar. A frenzy overtook the pet hedgehog market in 1994 when the best went for US$7000 (NZ$8700) a pair. Today, they're down to US$50 a pair.
The International Hedgehog Fanciers' Society runs hedgehog shows all over North America. Judge Cyndie Stumbaugh says it's tougher judging hedgehogs than sheep. “With hedgehogs, you've got to coax the personality out. With sheep, what you see is what you get.”
Bryan Smith, president of the society, has bred hedgehogs in 16 different colours, including platinum, snowflake, apricot and chocolate confetti. Now he's trying for black, red and blue varieties. Despite the rising popularity, hedgehogs are still a minority interest in the US and have some way to go before they overtake pet hermit crabs.
In Germany, there have been reports of hedgehogs getting trapped in empty McDonald's McFlurry icecream containers. They crawl into the cups and die of starvation. Company executives are working on the problem.
- © Fairfax NZ News