Erinaceidae: Hedgehog Family

This family contains 20 species of two superficially quite distinct types of animal: the hedgehogs, and the gymnures, or moonrats. Members of the hedgehog subfamily occur extensively across Europe and Asia to western China, and in Africa as far south as Angola. Moonrats live in Indo-China, Malaysia, Borneo, the Philippines and northern Burma. All feed on a varied diet of worms, insects and mollusks, as well as some berries, frogs, lizards and birds.

One of the most familiar small mammals in Europe, the hedgehog gets its name from its piglike habit of rooting around for its invertebrate prey in the hedgerows. It is quite vocal and makes a range of grunting, snuffling noises.

Few members of the insectivore family have been able to grow much larger than moles because the food they eat - insects - are so small that they would need to eat a very large quantity. Hedgehogs, however, are more eclectic in their tastes, with a diet that includes earthworms, birds' eggs, frogs, lizards and even snakes. Eating these larger foods has allowed hedgehogs to grow much bigger than is the norm for the group.

The hedgehog's Latin name Erinaceus is derived from the word ericius, meaning a spiked barrier. Hedgehogs are mostly solitary, but when they do come together they follow a pecking order.

Nonetheless, being larger can have its disadvantages, not least being more conspicuous to predators. This is where the hedgehog’s most famous asset comes in handy. All over its back the hedgehog has rows of thickened hairs, which narrow at their tips into sharp, prickly points. Using muscles located around the base of the coat, which act like drawstrings, the hedgehog can roll into a ball, becoming an impregnable mass of prickles, which is very effective at deterring the advances of predators.

The flexible snout of this insectivore, combined with its snuffling behaviour when sniffing around for food, helps explain why it became known as the hedgehog.

Nocturnal by nature, hedgehogs are most likely to be seen out on summer's evenings after rainfall, when their invertebrate prey will also be more active. As autumn approaches, they start to put on weight for hibernation, and will remain dormant until the following spring. Although common in gardens, they face dangers here, particularly if they decide to hibernate in garden rubbish piled up for a bonfire. They can also get trapped in garden netting or be poisoned.

Hedgehogs produce 1, sometimes 2, litters of about 5 young each year. The young are weaned at about 5 weeks. In the north of their range, hedgehogs hibernate throughout the winter.

Distribution: These hedgehogs range across most of Europe, including S. Scandinavia, and eastwards into parts of Asia.

Habitat: Woodland, grassland and gardens.

Weight: 1.5 - 2 kg (3.3 - 4.4 lb).

Length: 15 - 30 cm (38 - 76 in).

Maturity: 1 year.

Gestation Period: 35 days; females may produce 2 litters a year.

Breeding: 1 - 9, typically 5; weaning occurs after 35 days.

Food: Mainly insectivorous, hunting slugs, snails, worms, beetles and the eggs of groundnesting birds.

Lifespan: Up to 8 years in the wild; 10 years in captivity.

Status: Common, but declining in the UK.


There are 4500 - 7500 spines covering the upperparts.


The underparts are covered in dark hair.


The hedgehog's sharp teeth help it to grab prey, with the first incisors at the front of the mouth resembling canines.

Rolling into a ball protects the hedgehog's vulnerable head and underparts from attack by a would-be predator.


Desert Hedgehog

Range: N. Africa, Middle East to Iraq.

Habitat: Arid scrub, desert.

Size: Body: 5.2 - 8.9 in (13.2 - 22.6 cm); Tail: 0.5 - 1.4 in (1.2 - 3.6 cm).

The desert hedgehog resembles its slightly larger European cousin, but its coloration is more variable. Generally the spines are sandy-buff with darker tips, but dark and white forms are not uncommon. Desert hedgehogs dig short, simple burrows in which they pass the day. At night, when the air is cool, they emerge to search for invertebrates and the eggs of groundnesting birds. Scorpions are a preferred food; the hedgehogs nip off the stings before eating them. In common with most desert mammals, these hedgehogs probably have highly adapted kidneys, enabling them to exist for long periods without water.

In July or August desert hedgehogs breed, producing a litter of about 5 young.


Southern African Hedgehog

The southern African hedgehog lives in two populations. The first is found in south-western Africa, stretching from Angola to northern Namibia, and the second, larger, group lives in Zimbabwe, Botswana and the Cape Province of South Africa. This species' catholic tastes for food mean that it can survive in most places as long as there is plenty of cover.

Like Eurasian hedgehogs, this species is covered in short spines. It stands out from others because it has a thick white band across the forehead.

The southern African hedgehog lives alone. It forages at night and rests by day. This species eats mainly ground-living insects, such as beetles and grasshoppers, but it often scratches around for earthworms and centipedes. The hedgehogs are also known to supplement their diet with mushrooms, lizards and carrion.

Mating takes places throughout the year. The male must court the female by walking around her several times. Litters can contain up to ten young. An older female may have several litters in one year.

Distribution: Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.

Habitat: Grasslands, rocky areas and gardens.

Food: Insects, worms and centipedes.

Size: 15 - 20 cm (6 - 8 in); 150 - 555 g (5.25 - 19.5 oz).

Maturity: 1 year.

Breeding: Litters of between 4 and 10 young born several times a year.

Life span: 3 years.

Status: Common.


Indian Hedgehog

The Indian or desert hedgehog is similar in appearance to the common European hedgehog, except that it tends to be smaller in size. Indian hedgehogs come in different colours; some have banded spines of dark brown, with black and white or with yellow, and there is also an unusually large proportion of black and white individuals.

Some Indian hedgehogs have a banded appearance with a brown muzzle and a white forehead and sides. Unlike European hedgehogs, which have smooth spines, they have rough spines.

As their alternative name suggests, these animals are well adapted to living in dry desert conditions. They escape the heat of the day by lying up in burrows about 1 - 2 m (3 - 6 ft) deep, which they dig themselves. When the temperatures drop at night, they come out and search the desert floor for prey. If they are alarmed or are chasing frogs, these hedgehogs can move surprisingly fast considering their short legs, reaching speeds exceeding 2 kph (1.25 mph).

They often bring food back to their burrows for later use. When water or food is scarce, Indian hedgehogs may stay sleeping in their burrows for long periods to conserve energy and water. These hedgehogs stay in the same places all year round and live alone.

Distribution: Pakistan and India.

Habitat: Deserts and other dry habitats.

Food: Insects, small vertebrates and birds' eggs.

Size: 14 - 27 cm (5.6 - 13.5 in); up to 435 g (1 lb).

Maturity: 1 year.

Breeding: 1 - 6 young born per litter.

Life span: 7 years.

Status: Lower risk.