Hedgehogs are an extremely versatile and adaptable animal that can be found in large areas of the world. They are native to Asia, Africa, Europe and Great Britain. They have been successfully introduced to some of Britain's northerly islands as well as to New Zealand. Hedgehogs are most closely related to the shrew family and despite their slight similarity, they are totally unrelated to porcupines. Other hedgehog-related species include tenrecs, a spiny, near look-alike animal found on the island of Madagascar, as as well as moonrats, the hairy hedgehog of South-East Asia.
Considering the wide area across which these animals are distributed, it is of little wonder that there are a total of 16 species and 5 genera of hedgehogs. From animals that weigh a mere one pound to those that tip the scales at over four pounds, the variations within the hedgehog family are great and very distinct.
The hedgehog that most pet lovers in North America are familiar with is commonly referred to as the African Pygmy Hedgehog. It was previously thought that these hedgehogs were a hybrid of Algerian hedgehogs and the White-Bellied (Atelerix albiventris), but this is unlikely given the location from which our hedgehogs were exported from, and the coloring. Our pet hedgehogs are the species Atelerix albiventris.
The White-Bellied, or Four-Toed Hedgehog, is found right across steppes and savanna of central Africa. They are naturally an insectivorous animal but will eat other foods of they are available. Besides eating a wide range of insects, they will also dine on small rodents, snakes, bird eggs and chicks, as well as fruit, roots and groundnuts. There seems to be virtually no limit to what a hedgehog will eat. It is of little wonder, then, that many of the original wild-caught hedgehogs were first captured in garbage dumps!
A common misconception about hedgehogs is that they are a burrowing mammal. While it is true that they enjoy a dark, cool hole in which to sleep and raise their young, these burrows are usually the abandoned holes of other animals. If no such accommodation is available, they will simply look for a shallow depression in the ground or a crag between two rocks and cover it with a thick mat of leaf debris and sticks. In this very basic home they will sleep, hibernate and raise their young.
They are a solitary animal that is more than content to live and sleep on their own. If they should happen to cross paths with another hedgehog during their nightly forays, they will generally avoid one another but will on occasion fight one another. It is only during breeding that males and females will come together and, once the job is done, both will head their separate ways, with the female raising her young solely on her own.
African hedgehogs have many predators including birds of prey, jackals and wild dogs. These animals, though, must be able to penetrate the hedgehogs main means of defense - its spines. When frightened, a hedgehog will simply roll itself into a tight ball, presenting its attacker with a near impenetrable ball of spines. Although this is effective against many would-be predators, it is of little use against the hedgehogs number one threat - the automobile. Every year, scores of thousands of hapless hedgehogs are killed on roadways. So many are killed, in fact, that wild populations have been severely depleted in some parts of the world.