“We hear in the news about African-Americans being shot in a church, and this brings up all sorts of other things and experiences,” says Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville. “Maybe that specific thing has never happened to us. But maybe we’ve had uncle or aunts who have experienced things like this, or we know people in our community [who have], and their stories have been passed down. So we have this whole cultural knowledge of these sorts of events happening, which then sort of primes us for this type of traumatization.”
Nubian paintings from Christian period, Nile River Valley south of the First Cataract, dating from the 8th century AD. Influenced by missionaries sent from Constantinople, the rulers of the Nile Valley from the first to the third cataracts converted to Christianity in about 548 AD.
Josephine Baker wed fourth (and final) husband, orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947. They were together until their divorce in 1961. It was during this time Ms. Baker adopted her twelve children of different ethnicities and religions which she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” It was her desire to show the world that children from different backgrounds could live together as brothers.
African pygmy hedgehogs (photos: West Coast Hedgehogs)
If you are a pet hedgehog owner you have probably heard or read it somewhere: our pet African pygmy hedgehogs (APH for short) are a man-made hybrid between two species from the genus Atelerix; the four-toed or white-bellied hedgehog Atelerix albiventris and the North African or Algerian hedgehog Atelerix algirus (in this article the species will be referred to as Algerian and white-bellied). This hybrid theory has been around since people began breeding hedgehogs for the pet trade and most don’t doubt or ever think twice about it. But is it true?
Algerian hedgehog vs four-toed hedgehog
All hedgehogs in the world belong to the same subfamily, the Erinaceinae. Within this subfamily there are five genera, containing a total of 17 hedgehog species. One of these genera is Atelerix, which currently contains four species all living in Africa: the four-toed (white-bellied) hedgehog, the North African (Algerian) hedgehog, the Somali hedgehog and the Southern African hedgehog.
A hybrid is a cross between two different species. Crosses between two species within the same genera are the most common; these hybrids are called interspecific hybrids. Since species within the same genus are closely related and therefore have a more compatible chromosome count they are more likely to produce viable offspring. A well-known example of such a hybrid is the mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey. Technically speaking there could be an Algerian X white-bellied hybrid. But one of the downsides of hybridization is reduced fertility. Most hybrids are sterile and unable to produce offspring. Some have been able to reproduce e.g. the liger, and the occasional mule foal has been born out of a mule mare and a donkey jack. However, for the majority of interspecific hybrids, these are rare and it would be likely for an Algerian X white-bellied cross to be infertile. Most hybrids will posses physical and behavioural traits of both parents. If we take a closer look at the two hedgehog species, though, we see the Algerian hedgehog looks nothing like our African pygmy hedgehogs. Instead, they are a perfect copy of the white-bellied hedgehog.
White-bellied hedgehogs (photos: Roy Bruce Kemp / haiths.com / Tui De Roy / Kennedy)
Algerian hedgehogs (photos: Wikipedia / canaryfans.com / erisos.org)
While there are similarities between the two species it is easy to spot the differences, most noticeably the legs and feet. The white-bellied hedgehog has four toes on its back feet just like our pet APH. The feet are small and the legs are short. There can be dewclaws or occasionally a fifth toe on the back feet. The Algerian hedgehog, however, has very long legs with five toes on every feet, showing it is a faster runner and better climber. Not only are there five toes, the paws are also different and look more like little ‘hands’ with claws. Wild white-bellied are in the same weight and size range as the APH while the Algerian tends to be heavier and larger. Both species come in different colours. Most white-bellied have brown or grey quills with white or cream tips and a dark mask, often extending under the eyes (cheek patches). The belly is white and the legs tend to be darker. The Algerian hedgehog usually has brown or grey quills with white or cream tips and most don’t have a mask or only a very light one. The belly fur can be anywhere from brown to (creamy) white and the legs are dark.
Hedgehog feet (photos: Hedgehogs of Asgard)
The picture on the left shows the back feet of an African pygmy hedgehog and the one on the right is an Algerian hedgehog. Note the different number of toes and the shape of the feet.
While there were occasional exports of white-bellied hedgehogs to the United States in the late 1970’s and 80’s the mass imports didn’t start until the 90’s when the African hedgehogs became a desired pet and sold for thousands of dollars on the exotic pet market. Z.G. Standing Bear from The Flash and Thelma Memorial Hedgehog Rescue has interviewed the major exporter of hedgehogs, Richard Stubbs, on several occasions. According to Standing Bear, Stubbs was living in Lagos, Nigeria in the early 90’s, working as an exotic animal exporter (mostly reptiles). According to Stubbs, some men from Kano approached him in 1991 with hedgehogs for sale; they claimed the hedgehogs were overpopulating around Kano. Stubbs bought 2,000 of them for 50 cents each and shipped them to New York, where they quickly became popular. They were dubbed “African pygmy hedgehogs” (even though they aren’t pygmy; it most likely just sounded cute and they are smaller than the more familiar European hedgehog). By 1993 the APH had become a fad pet and demand increased. It was getting harder to find hedgehogs around Kano, so Stubbs’ suppliers started to venture further north into Nigeria, and into Niger and Benin as well. Stubbs exported around 50,000 hedgehogs while living in Lagos. The African pygmy hedgehog was the hot and new must-have in the exotic pet world and could sell for as much as $5000 for a breeding pair; other exporters quickly jumped on the bandwagon and together they exported around 30,000 hedgehogs into the US. Combined with Stubbs’ numbers, this totalled an estimated 80,000 hedgehogs, which have formed the base of the population in the US and later that of other countries as well. The export of hedgehogs stopped around 1994 when the US Department of Agriculture placed a 90-day quarantine on all animals imported from countries harbouring foot and mouth disease. This included all African countries, which made it difficult to import new hedgehogs. The exported hedgehogs came from central Africa, in the middle of the range of the white-bellied hedgehog. Stubbs, and later the other exporters, started around Kano (see red marker on the map) and expanded to neighbouring countries as demand increased. Even venturing further north, though, these exporters would never have reached the range of the Algerian hedgehog, bordering the Mediterranean sea, and with the massive Sahara desert in between.
Confused by colour
While it’s highly unlikely an Algerian hedgehog ever set foot in the United States, the story about hybridization had to start somewhere. This is brings us to the colour guide of the International Hedgehog Association (IHA):
“Hedgehog color genetics have come a long way in just 10 years. We currently recognize 92 colors in two distinct group classifications – White-Bellied and Algerian. To understand why there are 2 color groups is to understand the genesis of the domestic hedgehog.
The domestic hedgehog that we have in North America, South America, parts of Europe and Japan is the result of the crossing of two distinctly different species of African Hedgehog - the White-Bellied (Atelerix albiventris) and the Algerian. (Atelerix algirus).”
“Although the term “White-Bellied” is commonly used to refer to a species of hedgehog, the IHA also recognizes it as a separate color category from that of the Algerian colors. A hedgehog exhibiting the color traits of a White-Bellied may or may not exhibit the physical traits. (Smaller body, shorter nose and smaller ears than that of the Algerian) Since the two species have been interbred to produce the domestic hedgehog, the only true trait of the White-Bellied species left is the color as this does not mix with the colors of the Algerian species.
White-Bellied colored hedgehogs can be easily distinguished by looking at the "eye” or “cheek” patches. If the hedgehog has no cheek patches, or if they are very small, consisting of black hairs, then the hedgehog in question is in the White-Bellied color range. If the mask is strong and golden-brown or orange, then the hedgehog is in the Algerian range. This is a far more accurate means of identification than the older method of looking for white quills, rather than the “cream” or off-white colored quills of the Algerian-colored hedgehog.” http://www.hedgehogcentral.com/colorguide.shtml
As can be seen in the pictures of wild hedgehogs and the descriptions of the species it’s the Algerian hedgehog who is the one without a mask while the white-bellied hedgehog tends to have a dark mask with big cheek patches: in the colour guide however, it’s the other way around.
So where did it change? The first imports were hedgehogs displaying what is now called “white-bellied” colours. When another batch arrived, coming from another area (probably when Stubbs was venturing north from Kano), the hedgehogs looked different: they were bigger, had larger masks with a golden tinge under the eyes and darker skin (mottling). This confused the breeders and since the exporters were vague about exact locations and species they called these dark traits “Algerian” and the lighter ones “white-bellied” since they thought they must be breeding two different hedgehog species.
Hoglets with “white-bellied” (left) and “Algerian” colouring (right) (photos: West Coast Hedgehogs)
When cross-breeding these two types something interesting started to show up: two parallel lines of colours, exhibiting the “white-bellied” and “Algerian” traits. As turned out certain traits were always linked to each other; hedgehogs with a big cheek patch mask would have darker skin and mottling on the legs, while the hedgehogs with a small mask would have lighter skin and little to no mottling. For every “Algerian” colour there is a corresponding “white-bellied” version. The “Algerian” colouring is more dominant and both colours can show up in a litter together. You can get “Algerians” out of “white-bellied” parents or the other way around. While the colours mirrored each other the other physical traits like body size were mixing and aren’t linked to the “white-bellied” or “Algerian” forms anymore.
Very little is known about the genetics behind the colours of the APH. They haven’t been studied, there are no genetic tests, and since they are a relatively new pet the colours are still developing and changing. Most of the information on colour, like the IHA colour guide, is from years ago and might not be completely accurate anymore. But in the wild we can see white-bellied hedgehogs in different colours and with different masks. Could it simply be a colour variation within one species or might it be something else? Bryan Smith, one of the creators of the IHA colour guide says “We had not one range of colours, but two - two colour ranges that parallel one another perfectly pretty much from the earliest beginnings of North American captive breeding programs. You shouldn’t be seeing this in a single species. These are not blended colours that we’re dealing with. These are two ranges that remain distinct despite any attempts to cross the two.”
Could the “white-bellied” colour variety be a subspecies of the generally bigger, darker white-bellied hedgehogs? It is not uncommon for hedgehog species to have a lot of variation in colour (and general appearance, like size). While the European hedgehog in the UK is usually a dark brown the same species in Spain tends to be lighter in colour and bigger in size. There is a lot of variety within the Algerian hedgehog as well. The species has been imported to certain islands and countries in Europe, and these hedgehogs are sometimes considered a subspecies of their Algerian cousins in North Africa. There is not much field research done on African hedgehog species and there could be more (sub)species than we currently know about. The differences between subspecies are less distinct, the genes are pretty much the same and they are often able to produce fertile offspring, but they usually do not interbreed in nature due to geographical isolation and other factors.
If we are dealing with just one species, the white-bellied hedgehog, mask + mottling could simply be a modifier not specifically linked to a certain colour; if the base colour of the hedgehog is caused by a certain gene, another gene could modify the expression of the other. In most animals there are genes that alter and dilute colours. If certain genes exist in hedgehogs there could be different variations in the expression of mask, skin colour and mottling within one species.
What does this mean for us as pet hedgehog owners? As for now, we might want to stop using the terms “white-bellied” and “Algerian” when determining colours to avoid further confusion. We now know our APH aren’t a ‘man-made’ hybrid but just white-bellied hedgehogs or possibly a cross with a subspecies. It will remain somewhat of a mystery until DNA research can show us the truth. But that’s what’s so important; if we know where and what to look for, more research can be done. Our pet hedgehogs have changed very little since we started breeding them. We have created more colours and patterns but other than that, our pet hedgehogs are pretty much the same as the wild ones running around on the savannah of central Africa. Research can give us more insight in their behaviour, their diet and their natural environment which in turn can help us provide better care. The African pygmy hedgehog still has a long way to go before we can consider them fully domesticated, and we still have a lot to learn about these wonderful animals.
Gummy Bear does not approve of young family members of my captors staying with us for the next 20 days. Maybe he’s beginning to realize that we hedgies might make a fine meal for them, especially now that he’s gotten a bit bigger…