by Whit Gibbons

June 17, 2007

I recently received the following questions about mammals and trees.

Q: We have a baby raccoon that is about 3½ months old. What should be its first food after formula? Will eggs upset its stomach at this early an age?

A: After being weaned from milk, baby raccoons will eat the same kinds of foods as puppies and kittens. When we had one, we fed it canned dog food when it began to eat solid food. We banished it to being an "outdoor pet" when we discovered it had learned how to open the refrigerator and pantry doors. As far as eating eggs, by the time baby raccoons are able to forage on their own under natural conditions, they would almost certainly eat bird eggs when they could find them. So I can't imagine that chicken eggs would be a problem for a raccoon. As with all wild pets, you should check with state wildlife officials about any restrictions and with your veterinarian about proper care.

Q: Once a porcupine releases his quills do they grow back? How long does it take? Are they like our fingernails? Also, do the quills cause serious infection when stuck in a person’s skin or a dog's nose?

A: Quills are of the same origin as the tough, outer guard hairs on dogs and other mammals that have thick coats. The hairs grow back when they are removed or, in the case of a quill, when they are stuck into a predator. A long quill probably takes several days or even weeks to grow back completely. Generally, porcupine quills do not cause infection because they have an antibiotic coating. The sticking itself hurts plenty, and the tips of quills can even break off under the skin. But because of their antibiotic properties porcupine quills create fewer problems from infection than a typical splinter.

Q: I was in the mountains of North Carolina last week and was told that many of the large hemlock trees were dying. I was shown a white, powdery substance on the needles that was said to be the problem. Is it true the trees are threatened by this bug or fungus or whatever it is?

A: Yes, eastern hemlocks are another of our great trees, like chestnuts and oaks, that have been or are being negatively affected by an introduced organism from another continent. The cause of the hemlock problem is an insect from Asia known as the hemlock woolly adelgid, a small, sap-sucking creature in the same order as aphids. The insect was first discovered in the Canadian Pacific Northwest more than 80 years ago and in the East, in Virginia, in the 1950s. The problems for eastern hemlocks began at about that time.

Adult adelgids produce a waxy protective coating that covers their body and is visible as a white substance on the needles of infected hemlock or spruce trees. The insect inserts a long proboscis into the plant at the base of needles and removes nutrients. Hemlock trees, which may reach heights of 150 feet, typically die from adelgid infestations within four years. Although single trees can be saved with local treatments, forestwide applications are not currently feasible. According to some reports the hemlock woolly adelgid could eventually eliminate all the giant hemlock trees from the Smoky Mountains.

Another impressive forest tree of the eastern states, the American chestnut, was virtually eliminated in the last century by a fungus from China. Of more recent concern is another fungus discovered about a decade ago on the West Coast. The fungus, which is of uncertain origin, is the source of a phenomenon called sudden oak death syndrome (SODS). The fungus has killed thousands of western oak trees as well as more than a dozen other species of trees. So far, SODS has been confined primarily to California and Oregon, but presumably at least some of the many species of eastern oaks will also be susceptible. The entire cultural character of many southern towns and cities is defined by lanes and boulevards lined by huge, centuries-old oaks. The thought that they might someday be wiped out is a somber one.

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