While the Short-nosed Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is not threatened, to celebrate this Easter Season we would like to share some information about one of the world’s true egg-laying mammals.
This waddling, well-camouflaged mammal is a very peculiar creature. Echidnas and Platypuses are monotremes – the only mammals in the world that lay eggs. There are four species of Echidna and they are all found in Papua New Guinea, while only the Short-beaked Echidna is also found in Australia.
Short-beaked Echidnas can grow up to 40cm long and weigh up to 7kg, but most are between 2kg and 5kg. Their Latin name means ‘quick tongue’ (Tachyglossus) and ‘spiny’ (aculeatus).
Their snouts are rigid and strong, allowing them to break open logs and termite mounds. Echidnas then slurp up ants and other insects with their sticky, saliva-covered tongue, which can be up to an astonishing 17cm long. Echidnas have a very keen sense of smell which is useful in locating mates, detecting danger and snuffling for food. Their short limbs and shovel-like claws are perfect for digging-out food and burrowing in the soil. Males also have a spur on each hind leg though which, unlike Platypuses, is non-venomous. Instead, they use their hard, sharp spines for protection. Below these 5cm-long spines, Echidnas are covered in short black hair, helping them to live in a wide variety of habitats.
Echidnas may be shy and infrequently seen, but they’re found across most of Australia. They hold the title of Australia’s most widespread native mammal. You can find Echidnas slowly wandering around most habitats, from deserts to rainforests and alpine mountains. To survive extremes in weather, Echidnas burrow into the soil, hide under vegetation and shelter in hollow logs, rock crevices, and in burrows created by Wombats or rabbits. Amazingly, Echidnas are good swimmers. They’ve been seen crossing rivers and beaches with their snouts in the air like snorkels.
How do you know when Echidnas are breeding? Just look for a female being trailed by one to 10 males. This can last for weeks at a time. While it doesn’t sound romantic, the female will eventually mate with the male that, through sheer tenacity, follows her for the longest time. The female will then lay a single, leathery egg. Only 0.16cm in length, this tiny egg is incubated in her pouch. When the egg is the size of a jellybean, the young Echidna – called a puggle – hatches from the egg. It is then carried in the mother’s pouch for about three months, where it suckles on her mammary glands. The puggle leaves the pouch when it grows spines, at about three months old. Young stay and suckle from the mother until they’re weaned – at about six months of age.
Adult Echidnas eat ants and termites, and sometimes feast on earthworms, beetles and moth larvae. Without teeth to chew their prey, they grind food between their tongue and the bottom of their mouth. Their tongue is so sticky and effective that they accidentally consume a lot of dirt while feeding, which is why their droppings are laced with soil.
The primary threat to Echidnas is habitat loss, especially the loss of fallen logs and tree stumps, and protective understory vegetation. As they move so slowly they‘re also vulnerable to being hit by vehicles. Cats, dingoes and large goannas may eat young or young adults, but generally echidnas don’t have many natural predators. If threatened, an echidna will curl into a ball (if on hard ground), lodge itself into a log or rock crevice, or quickly dig a shallow excavation, so that only its sharp spines are exposed – a very effective protection strategy.
Source: Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions; and Bush Heritage Australia.