The Short-Beaked Echidna is one of only two species of monotremes in Australia. The other being the Duck-billed Platypus
The Echidna is named after Echidna, a creature from Greek mythology who was half-woman, half-snake, as the animal was perceived to have qualities of both mammals and reptiles.
Sometimes called the spiny anteater, the short-beaked echidna (pronounced e-kid-nuh) measures 30-45 cm (13.5-17.5 in.) long and weighs 2-5 kg (6.5-14.5 lb.). Although it resembles a porcupine or hedgehog, closer inspection of the echidna reveals some of the animal’s more unusual traits.
Echidnas are monotremes, or mammals that lay eggs. They have a lower body temperature than other mammals, maintaining temperatures around 31-32° C (87.8-89.6° F). Similar to reptiles, their legs protrude outwards and then downwards, resulting in a waddling effect when they walk.
Two types of fur cover their body. A coat of short, coarse hair insulates echidnas from the cold, while longer hairs act as spines, protecting them from predators. Their sharp, creamy-colored spines are 50 mm (2 in.) in length and are composed of keratin, the same material that makes up our fingernails. The Short-Beaked Echidna has a bare, tube-like snout and a long, sticky tongue. The feet are dark and have a set of powerful black claws. The second claw on each hind foot is the elongated and is used to scratch and groom between its spines.
Consuming ants, termites, grubs, larvae, and worms, the Echidna is specially-adapted to hunt its prey. It has a pointy snout that can sense electrical signals from insect bodies. Once it detects its prey, the echidna uses its long, sharp claws and short, sturdy limbs to dig into the soil and expose the invertebrates.
The ants or termites are then extracted using its long sticky tongue, which is pushed down the long tunnels of the insect’s nest. The food items stick to the tongue and then eaten as it is drawn back into the mouth. Echidnas do not have teeth, but they do have horny pads in their mouths and on the back of their tongues which grind the prey.
The Short-beaked Echidna is found all over Australia but is rarely seen because of its secretive habits. The echidna avoids extreme temperatures and shelters in burrows, caves or quickly makes a shallow excavation in the ground. Limited only by an insufficient supply of ants or termites, short-beaked echidnas live in a range of climates and habitats. They are able to find shelter in rocks and fallen trees.
When confronted by predators, such as goannas (large Australian monitor lizards), dingoes, foxes, feral cats, dogs, eagles, and Tasmanian devils (which even eat the spines), the echidna employs several tactics for defense. On hard surfaces, they may run away or curl into a ball exposing only the spines. In other cases, they may dig into the soil or wedge themselves into a crevice or log, again only exposing the spines.
Breeding & Reproduction
Echidnas are largely solitary creatures and only convene to mate. At the beginning of the breeding season, between July and September, the female develops a pouch. She will then be followed around by as many as six males at a time. Eventually, she will mate with the most persistent of these.
A few weeks after mating, she digs a burrow and lays one soft, leathery egg into her pouch. After 10 days, a blind, hairless baby echidna (known as a puggle) hatches and attaches itself to a milk patch inside the pouch.
For the next 8-12 weeks, the puggle nurses inside the pouch until it develops spines. At this point, the puggle must vacate the pouch, but it still stays in the burrow for the next 6 months and continues to suckle.
Interesting Facts about Echidnas
- Their spines are actually modified hairs. Echidnas' bodies (with the exception of their undersides, faces, and legs) are covered with 2-inch long spines. Fur between the spines provides insulation.
- Echidnas live slow and long. Echidnas have the lowest body temperature of any mammal, 32°C (89°F). Their body temperatures are not controlled in the same way as that of other mammals, and can fluctuate by up 6–8°C over the course of the day. Their long life spans — up to 50 years in captivity, with anecdotal reports of wild animals reaching 45 years — are due to their low body temperature and slow metabolism.
- Male echidnas have a bizarre, four-headed penis. You might wonder how you mate with a four-headed penis. During sex, two of the heads shut down while the other two grow bigger to fit into the female's two-branched reproductive tract.
- Echidnas form mating trains. A strange process marks the start of echidna breeding season. Males line up nose to tail behind a single female, forming a train of up to a dozen individuals. Trains can last more than a month, with males dropping out and rejoining. When the female is finally ready to mate, the males dig a trench in the ground around her. The males compete for mating honors by pushing each other out of the trench. The last one remaining gets to mate with the female.
- Echidnas are egg-laying mammals. Along with the platypus, the echidna is a member of the monotremes, an order of egg-laying mammals found in Australia.
- Echidnas are mammals without nipples. Like all mammals, echidnas feed their young milk. But they do it without nipples. Instead, female echidnas have special glands in their pouches called milk patches that secrete milk, which the puggle laps up.
- Echidnas are electroreceptive. Like the platypus, the echidna has an electroreceptive system. While the platypus has 40,000 electroreceptors on its bill, echidnas have only 400-2,000 electroreceptors on their snouts.
- They're toothless but make up for it with their tongues. At the end of their slender snouts, echidnas have tiny mouths and toothless jaws.
- Echidnas host the world's largest flea. Bradiopsylla echidnae, the echidna flea, is thought to be the world's largest flea at 4 mm (0.15 inches) long.
The IUCN Red List lists the short-beaked echidna as a species of least concern. Although short-beaked echidnas are considered common and widespread, they are protected by law in Australia. Threats include road accidents, bush fires, and droughts.