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Solitary and nocturnal, hedgehogs share our suburbs without us knowing they are there. If you find a hedgehog, you can help further research on this charismatic species. Story by Magriet Kruger, pictures by Jessica Light (née Artingstall)

Whether curled up into a prickly ball or nosing around the leaf litter, the hedgehog must be one of the veld’s cutest characters. Its back and flanks are covered in short, stiff hairs (spines), giving it an oddly fluffy look.

In South Africa there is only one naturally occurring species of hedgehog, Atelerix frontalis – a reference to the white band across the forehead. Weighing around 250-400g, they will easily fit onto the palm of your hand.

Because hedgehogs tend to spend the day sheltering between rocks and under layers of leaves and grass, people don’t often see them. You might be surprised to learn that they are found in many urban areas. In Johannesburg, for example, hedgehogs have been seen from Alberton through to Sunninghill.

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Should you be lucky enough to spot a hedgehog, your sighting could contribute to research. Masters student Jessica Light (née Artingstall) wants to map the species distribution in South Africa and find out how it has changed. With sightings becoming less common, hedgehogs are believed to be near threatened.

The decline has been attributed to habitat loss, fragmentation and transformation. Hedgehogs are also sold illegally as pets and trapped for food or muti.

On the lookout for hedgehogs

“We want people throughout the country to tell us when and where they see a Southern African hedgehog,” says Jessica.

Historical sightings are welcome up to 100 years ago – for older records give details of the decade. Anyone who sees a hedgehog can record their sighting by visiting the project’s website or Facebook page.

“We have had a few lucky experiences with hedgehogs. Each interaction is different: some quickly curl into a ball while others try to high tail it away. They move surprisingly quickly. For their body size they actually have quite long legs and a tiny tail that few people see.”

Hedgehogs mainly occur in grassland and savanna habitats, where they favour rocky surfaces and outcrops. They tend to be active at night or after rainstorms. Sightings in winter are rare as hedgehogs go into torpor, reserving energy to ride out the cold months. In September they emerge to mate.

Their main diet is insects but they will also eat earthworms, slugs, frogs, young birds, eggs, small mammals, lizards, wild fruits and vegetation. To find their food they rely on an acute sense of smell and good hearing.