FACEWISE, these mammals almost resemble each other and live similar lifestyles for both animals tend to be nocturnal in their feeding habits. They share a common family, the Erinaceidae. The word ‘hedgehog’ is derived from two Middle English words ‘hegge’ meaning a hedge and ‘hogge’ from its porcine-like snout. In my part of England, local folk refer to them as ‘hedgepigs’.
The moonrat somewhat resembles a rat with its long tail and small ears but this is where the comparison ends. In fact, they are not rodents and are completely unrelated to the rat family, having more in common with shrews.
Only a few years ago, hedgehogs were often seen in my garden at night but recently I haven’t seen a single one. The recent summer droughts have taken their toll in depriving hedgehogs of their dietary needs. Last year it was recorded that the hedgehog population in rural Britain had experienced a rapid decline by 35 to 75 per cent this century, owing to more frequent droughts and a rise in their main predator — the badger population.
My only glimpse of a moonrat, caught in my torch beam, was at Danum Valley, Sabah, on a night trek 23 years ago!
European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)
Worldwide there are 17 native species of hedgehog found in Europe, Asia, and Africa but not in the Arctic or Antarctica. They were introduced to New Zealand by early settlers but none are native to Australia and the Americas.
It is their spines that make them most distinctive. These are but hollow hairs stiffened by keratin and as the animal matures their ‘baby spines’, like human teeth, fall out and are replaced with adult spines. This process is known as ‘quilling’.
Apart from blonde hedgehogs found in the Channel Islands, off the French Atlantic coast, most hedgehogs are brown in colour with pale tips to their quills. In self-defence, hedgehogs roll up into a tight ball with their spines pointing outwards protecting their soft bellies, faces and tiny feet.
Weighing up to 2kg and with a body length of 27cm, to include their 4cm long tail, they have very powerful front feet equipped with sharp claws for digging. Moving with speeds up to 10km per hour, they are also climbers.
Reproduction and hibernation
Male hedgehogs are known as boars and females are referred to as cows. The latter’s gestation period averages 46 days before giving birth to a litter of three to four babies. These are born blind with a protective membrane covering their small quills, which dries within a few hours of birth. These offspring may live for up to seven years in the wild.
During hibernation, a hedgehog’s heart beat drops from 190 beats per minute to only 20 beats and its body temperature falls from 33 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius.
It seeks shelter by digging a nest in the ground, covered by fallen leaves or under a log pile or in garden compost heaps. Gardeners, in springtime, have to be careful in forking over their compost heaps for fears of impaling hedgehogs with the prongs!
Diet and predators
These are essentially nocturnal, omnivorous creatures, feeding mostly on snails, slugs, frogs, toads, small snakes, birds’ eggs, roots, berries, melons, and watermelons. On average, a hedgehog may consume about 40 slugs each night.
Since the disappearance of these animals, I have noticed a surge in the snail and slug populations in my rural garden! Sadly, hedgehogs suffer death as a result of ingesting slug pellets.
They are prone to human diseases such as cancer, liver failure, cardiovascular troubles, and pneumonia all of which threaten their survival. Their worst enemies are night drivers, resulting in many roadside casualties, leading to the creation of many hedgehog rescue centres and clinics in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
Their main predators are barn owls, stoats, and badgers who compete with them for similar food. In some parts of the world they are hunted for their meat and body parts to be sold for the making of traditional medicines. The Romany people in Europe still enjoy baked hedgehog meals.
William Shakespeare mentioned hedgehogs as mystical creatures in such plays as ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Richard III’, and again in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ but it was centuries later, in 1906, that Beatrix Potter’s ‘The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’ caught children’s imaginations and viewed a hedgehog in a more endearing light.
Borneo moonrat (Echinosorex gymnura)
Sometimes referred to as the ‘hairy hedgehog’, it is found mostly in secondary and lowland forests, mangrove swamps, and rubber plantations, preferring moist areas near streams.
It ranges up to a height of 1,000 metres on Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, and up to 900 metres in the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak. There are two species of this mammal found in Southeast Asia, one in the Thai-Malaysian peninsula and the other in Borneo.
Certainly they are nocturnal but are not at all related to rats! The Bornean species is usually whitish in colour with some scattered black hairs. Those from West Borneo have a higher proportion of black hairs compared with those from the eastern regions of the island.
They vary in bodily length from 32 to 40cm with a long tail of some 20 to 29cm, and can weigh up to 1kg. The moonrat is a very territorial mammal, releasing a strong ammonia smelling odour to demarcate the edges of its domain and fiercely threatens invading moonrats with hissing sounds.
Apart from mating time, it tends to live a solitary life. Breeding twice a year, the female scoops out her nest, made from leaves, under logs, tree roots, or in abandoned burrows of other animals. With a gestation period averaging 37 days, she then gives birth to two babies which will have a lifespan of about five years.
Diet and threats to their existence
Omnivorous by nature, moonrats feed on worms, insects, scorpions, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, small crabs, molluscs, frogs, fish, and fruit. Whilst classified as of Least Concern on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Threatened Species List, mankind still poses great threats to this animal through agricultural developments and commercial logging activities.
The Penan people have long threatened moonrats by trapping them for food and the sale of body parts for use in traditional medicine. Moonrats are referred to in Penan legends for their mystical properties. However, at the Matang Wildlife Centre and in the Kuching Wetlands National Park they are classified as a protected species. They can often be found in gardens much the same as the hedgehog may live in Europe.
Wherever we live, we need to protect both hedgehogs and moonrats from increasing encroachment from us. Sooner rather than later they will be animals of our past natural world’s history. That, indeed, would be a sad reflection on our so called civilised world and human progress generally.