The Sometimes Horrible Names for Ireland's Hedgehogs
Last month we acquainted ourselves with Ireland’s tiniest mammal, the pygmy shrew, and discovered that, despite its incredibly small size, it has loomed large in the imagination of some past observers, whose distaste at its nature resulted in some cruel and venomous names being thrown at it. However, the pygmy shrew is not the only member of its order in Ireland that has suffered the barbs of a human tongue, as some horrible names have also been hurled upon the back of that most innocent-looking and undeniably cute ball of spikes, the hedgehog.
According to one interpretation of the roots of the Irish word for ‘hedgehog’, gráinneog, it means ‘the horrible one’, deriving from the word gráin which can mean ‘loathsomeness, an object of loathing or horror’. Why anyone would see a little waddler like the hedgehog as such an object of horror is hard to imagine, but in the past this creature was not seen to be quite as benign as it is today.
Hedgehogs were introduced to Ireland by the Normans, in the twelfth or thirteenth century, and although this introduction may have been accidental it could also possibly have been a deliberate one related to their use as a food item. If the latter is true, it seems initially at least that the hedgehog was not considered too horrible to make a tasty meal of. However, at some point hedgehogs came to be regarded as vermin due to the perception that they preyed on the eggs of game birds, although it is now thought that this reputation is not really warranted.
The hedgehog does, though, engage in some behaviours that could be seen as horrible. For one thing, if alarmed a hedgehog may emit a sharp hiss like a snake, while, more darkly, the sensitivity of mothers to being disturbed in the first few days after giving birth is so great that if this occurs they may abandon their newborns, or even eat them. Hedgehogs also sometimes produce large quantities of frothy saliva and flick this back over their spines, which is known as self-anointing. But though to our eyes this may not look like a particularly attractive behaviour, and it is not yet entirely clear why they do this, it may play an important part in cleaning the spines or acting as an insecticide, while it may also have some function in courtship.
So, maybe we can see at least some ways in which the hedgehog might deserve to be called ‘the horrible one’, as one interpretation of its Irish name holds. However, when it comes to its English and scientific names, we find no such enmity towards this little creature, derived as they are entirely from it form and habitat.
For instance, its English name couldn’t be more straightforward, the first part being derived from the deeply unsurprising fact that it is often found in hedges, the second from its pig-like snout. But though the name ‘hedgehog’ goes all the way back to the mid-fifteenth century, the name for its young can be dated to far more recently. In the past, hedgehog babies were not referred to by any definite name, being variously referred to as pups, piglets, and even kits, but in the 1990s those in the know seemed to settle on the term ‘hoglet’ or ‘hedgehoglet’.
It is the hedgehog’s scientific name, though, which leads us to the feature this mammal is best known for – its spikes. The genus name for Ireland’s hedgehogs is Erinaceus, which is one of the Latin words for 'hedgehog', and Hayden and Harrington claim this means 'spiky wall', although no other source seems to back this up. In any case, an adult’s coat is covered in around 5,000 or more individual spikes, or spines, which are a form of modified hair, each of which can be raised in defence.
The defensive posture that really turns the hedgehog into a spiky wall, of course, is rolling into a ball, and how this occurs is nicely outlined by Hayden and Harrington:
‘When hedgehogs sense danger they tend to crouch close to the ground, hiss threateningly and erect their spines. If the danger is more serious they may roll into a ball. Hedgehogs have special muscles that allow them to do this. One muscle pulls the spiny skin over its head and another pulls it over the rump. A band of muscle that runs around the edge of the spiny skin acts like a drawstring. When it contracts, it pulls the edges of the skin together and encloses the body within the protective spiny area.’
The importance of the spines is underlined by the fact that hedgehogs are actually born already possessing a spiny coat, although the spines are hidden below the skin so the mother does not suffer any injury when giving birth. Within 24 hours of entry into the world, a wee hoglet’s spines emerge, and after about two or three days they can erect them. Just two to three weeks after birth, a hoglet has attained its adult spines and can roll into a ball.
The spines, then, are easily the most characteristic feature of Ireland’s hedgehogs, and they serve to make them look quite different to the other members of their order in Ireland, the pygmy shrews, something only reinforced by their greater size. Hedgehoglets weigh 10–25 grams at birth, so up to 100 times more than baby pygmy shrews, while adults can weigh up to 1,100 grams, making them around 200 times heavier than adult pygmy shrews at their heaviest weight of 5–6 grams.
However, if you disregard spines and size, the hedgehogs and shrews are quite similar in many ways, and it is worth noting in this regard that the very closest relatives of Ireland’s hedgehogs on Earth, the moonrats and gymnures which live in the warm forests of South Asia, lack spines and simply resemble very large shrews and have similar behaviours.
In any case, all of these mammals inhabit the same order, Eulipotyphla, and the origins of this order’s name could be considered truly horrible, at least in terms of accurately conveying the true evolutionary relationships of this mammal group.
Up to quite recently, many of the small, insect-eating, or insectivorous, mammals on Earth were placed in the same order, called Insectivora. However, this order was always more of a dumping ground for small mammals, and even as far back as 1866 the differences between some of its members led to it being split into two groups, the Menotyphla and Lipotyphla. Menotyphla included forms such as the elephant shrews of Africa and the tree shrews and colugos (AKA flying lemurs) of Southeast Asia, while the Lipotyphla included the shrews, hedgehogs, and moles, as well as forms like the tenrecs and golden moles of Africa and Madagascar, the former including some remarkably hedgehog-like and shrew-like species, and the latter, as you might suspect, mole-like species.
However, genetic studies in the later twentieth century showed that even these two groups included many members who were in fact very distantly related. For example, despite their tiny size, the betrunked elephant shrews of Africa are actually more closely related to the elephants they are named after than shrews like Ireland’s pygmy shrew. In turn, the tree shrews and colugos turned out to be more closely related to us primates, meaning Menotyphla as a group was utterly defunct.
Some of the members of Lipotyphla were also found to be only distantly related to Ireland’s pygmy shrews and hedgehogs, with the tenrecs and golden moles, like the elephant shrew, found to be closer relatives of the elephant than their diminutive Irish doppelgangers. With these forms removed from Lipotyphla, then, it was renamed as the order Eulipotyphla, ‘eu’ derived from ancient Greek and meaning ‘true, well, or good’.
The name Insectivora, then, seems to have been something of a horrible name for the hedgehog and its relatives, at least in terms of its conception. However, Eulipotyphla is not without problems itself, at least in terms of how it is often translated.
If you look up Eulipotyphla on the internet, numerous sources will inform you that it means ‘truly fat and blind’, but this does not appear to be accurate. The ‘eu’ part, as we have seen, does mean ‘true’, and the ‘lipo’ part seems to come from the Greek lipos, meaning ‘fat’, but the ‘typhla’ part certainly doesn’t mean ‘blind’. In fact, this last element derives from another Greek word, in this case typhlon, which refers to the caecum – a feature that corresponds to the human appendix – the presence of which once defined the menotyphlans as a group, while the lipotyphlans were defined by its absence.
‘Truly fat and blind’ seems to be a pretty horrible translation of Eulipotyphla, then, but over the span of a hedgehog’s life there are times when such a description is quite fitting. At birth, hedgehoglets are indeed truly blind, as well as deaf, and only by about two weeks of age have their little peepers opened up to behold the world around them. One of the most fascinating aspects of hedgehog’s lives, though, is that feature of their life cycles which requires them to become truly fat – hibernation.
During summer and autumn, Ireland’s hedgehogs put on large amounts of fat to prepare for their entry into hibernation, which typically occurs in October or November. Although they wake every few weeks from this wintry slumber to urinate and defecate or even forage around, for the vast majority of their hibernation, which lasts until March or April, they are inactive and their bodily processes slow to an amazing degree. Their temperature drops from around 35°C to as low as 15–20°C, while their heart rate plunges dramatically from about 250 beats per minute to a paltry 10 beats per minute. Their breathing rate also decreases greatly, and, incredibly, they can stop breathing altogether for up to two hours.
Like their characteristic spines, then, hibernation is an amazing feature of hedgehogs which brings us back to wondering why this wonderful little mammal should ever have been called ‘the horrible one’ in the first place. But maybe it never was.
Indeed, there are other interpretations for the roots of the Irish word for ‘hedgehog’, gráinneog, and these seem far more suitable considering its distinctive form. For instance, even if we accept that gráinneog comes from gráin, this word can mean not only ‘loathsomeness, an object of loathing or horror’, but also ‘spearpoint’, and so the latter would seem to be a clear reference to the hedgehog’s spines. And the same can be said of the other very similar Irish word which has been advanced as the root for gráinneog, grán, which means ‘grain’, as this may be a reference to the spines in that they resemble the stubs left behind after wheat has been harvested.
So, it seems it may never have been the intention of past Irish people to call the hedgehog ‘the horrible one’ after all, and the true roots of its Irish name may, like its English and scientific names, refer to the most fascinating aspects of its form. And this is how it should be. Whether we see this small mammal as a little ‘pig of the hedge’, a ‘spiky wall’, or a little ball of spearpoints or grain stubs, what we can all agree on is that it is not ‘the horrible one’ but ‘the wonderful one’ – more of a micro-marvel than a micro-monster.