Echidna Spiny Anteater

Echidna walking

Photo: Echidna walking with backward facing rear feet

Echidna Description

The echidna, also known as the spiny anteater, is a small dome-shaped egg-laying animal covered with sharp beige and black spines. It is called a monotreme, a mammal that lays eggs instead of giving birth to live young. The echidna is 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) long and weighs 2 -7 kilos (4.4-15.5lb). Its has a coarse insulating undercoat fur and pointed hollow keratin spines that cover its entire body except for its face, legs and underside. When threatened, an echidna rolls up into a ball with its spins facing outwards, providing a formidable and prickly defence against predators. An echidna's colouring depends on where it lives, being light brown in hotter climates and getting progressively darker, with thicker fur in colder climates. Males and females are mostly identical. However, an adult male echidna is around 25% larger than a female.

Photo: Echidna's eyes, snout and nostrils

The echidna has a tiny face with small eyes. Its eyesight is poor, but it compensates for this inadequacy with an excellent sense of hearing and smell. It has no external ears. Instead, it has funnel-like slits on either side of its head, hidden beneath its fur and spines that serve the same function. The echidna has a slender, elongated rubbery snout called a beak, which functions as both a mouth and a nose. This snout contains hundreds to thousands of highly sensitive electro-receptors that act like a radar, enabling it to locate prey by detecting the electrical signals they emit.  On the bottom of its beak is a tiny mouth with toothless jaws, which can only open about 5 mm (0.2 in). From this small mouth, the echidna sticks out a long sticky tongue with which it catches its prey.

Photo: Echidna's spines, eyes, snout and ear hole

The echidna has short, stumpy legs with its front feet pointing forwards and back feet pointing backwards. (Most animals have all their feet pointing forward). This unusual arrangement of the echidna's feet is ideal for rapid digging. Its front feet have five flat claws forming an effective spade for digging, burrowing and tearing open termite mounds and rotting logs. On the other hand, its backwards-pointing hind feet help it shovel away soil while burrowing. With this unique arrangement of its feet, the echidna can quickly dig itself into the ground. In addition, the echidna can rotate its rear legs 180 degrees and use an extra long claw on its second toe comb and scratch debris from its fur and spines.

The name Echidna is pronounced ih-KID-na. Its scientific name is Tachyglossus aculeatus, meaning "quick tongue and equipped with spines". Despite its slight resemblance to a hedgehog, the echidna and the hedgehog are genetically and geographically worlds apart.

Echidna Adaptations Echidnas are Unusual Animals

Echidnas also have several unique adaptations, which are highlighted below.

• They have a body temperature between 31-32°C (88-89.5°F), which is 5- 8°C (41-46°F) lower than other mammals.
• To prevent overheating, the echidna blows snot bubbles from its nose that evaporates and cools the blood vessels just under its skin.
• During winter, echidnas enter semi-hibernation known as "torpor", slowing their bodily functions and reducing their heart rate to only four beats per minute.  
• Echidnas have one of the low metabolic rates amongst all mammals.
• The neocortex, responsible for higher brain functions, makes up less than half of an echidna's brain mass.
• Female echidnas have spurs on their hind legs which secrete a waxy substance used to communicate when they're ready to mate and for marking their territory.
• The echidna's gullet connects directly to its intestine. There's no sac in the middle with gastric glands that secrete powerful acids and digestive enzymes.
• The echidna has only one opening at the end of its body called a cloaca into which the digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts release connect. This is a common characteristic amongst birds and reptiles but is rarely found in mammals.

Echidna Habitat & Distribution Where Do Echidnas Live?

Photo: Echidna habitat map

The short-beaked echidna lives in Australia and New Guinea, and the long-beaked echidna is only found in the highlands of New Guinea. They range over a wide range of habitats, from snow-covered mountains to deserts and even urban areas. They live among rocks, hollow logs, holes among tree roots, hiding in leaf litter or sometimes occupying wombat or rabbit burrows.

Echidnas tend to avoid temperature extremes. In temperate climates, echidnas are usually active in the early morning and late afternoon. In hot arid environments, echidnas forage at night and shelter during the hotter parts of the day.

Echidna Diet What do Echidnas Eat?

Echidna Feeding

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The echidna eats mainly termites, ants, earthworms, beetles and larvae hidden in termite mounds, anthills, rotting logs or under leaf litter. It uses its nostrils and electro-receptors on the tip of its beak to locate its prey. Once it has detected its prey, the echidna uses its powerful claws to tear open the mound and nests. It then flicks its 18cm long sticky tongue in and out up to 100 times a minute to lap up its prey. (Hence the echidna's scientific name of Tachyglossus, meaning `fast tongue)'. The echidna has no teeth. So, it uses hard keratin pads at the base of its tongue to push food up against the roof of its mouth and grinds its meal into a paste before swallowing. The echidna gets most of the water it requires from its diet. However, this is sometimes supplemented by drinking water or licking morning dew from plants and grasses.

The climate governs the echidna's feeding habits. In very hot weather, the echidna is nocturnal, only feeding at night. In cooler weather, it is diurnal, foraging in the morning and evening.

Echidna Reproduction, Eggs, Puggle What is the Life Cycle of an Echidna?

Photo: Echidna egg

Echidnas copulate (mate) by lying on their sides with their spineless undersides facing each other. The male has internal testes, no external scrotum and a huge four-pronged penis that is nearly a quarter of his body length when erect. This penis is extended out and inserted into the female cloaca for impregnation. After fertilisation, the female develops a temporary pouch (pseudo-pouch), a shallow depression in her abdomen covered by two overlapping skin flaps. Approximately 16 days after fertilisation, the female echidna lays one leathery egg, roughly the size of a small grape (13–16 mm), into her pouch. She then incubates the egg in her pouch for 7-10 days.

Echidna Love Train

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A baby echidna is called a puggle. When it is ready to hatch, the puggle uses its eye-tooth to tear through its leathery shell and exists into the pouch. At this stage, it has well-developed forelimbs and is about the size of a small jelly bean. The puggle uses its forelimbs to hold onto the fur in its mother's pouch. The mother echidna has no nipples or teats like other mammals. Instead, it oozes milk through its skin from specialised milk patches. The puggle nuzzles up against these patches, encouraging them to secrete milk which the puggle licks up rapidly.

Photo: Echidna baby called a puggle

A puggle stays in its mother's pouch for about three months. During this time, the female may remove the puggle from the pouch and leave it in a special nursery burrow while she goes out to forage for food. Once the puggle's spines begin to develop, its mother encourages its offspring to spend more and more of its time outside the pouch. Finally, when the puggle is about 200 days old, the mother will dig out its nursery burrow opening and abandon the young puggle to fend for itself. She will not return to the burrow again.

The average lifespan of an echidna in the wild is around 16 years. However, some lived up to 45 years of age. Their longevity may be a result of their rather laid-back lifestyle and low metabolic rate.

Echidna Swimming Can Echidnas Swim?

Echidna Swimming

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Echidnas are good swimmers. They are known to visit their favourite watering-holes for an occasional dip. Unlike most land animals, the echidna swims with its head underwater, only lifting its beak above the waterline when it needs to take a breath. Like most quadrupeds (four-legged animals), the echidna uses a dog-paddling swimming stroke.

Echidna's Defences How the Echidna Protects Itself from Predators

The echidna's speckled brown body is its first defence against predators. It will stay motionless for long periods and try to blend into its environment. If it is confronted while on a hard surface, which it cannot dig into, the echidna may try to waddle away at full speed. Unfortunately, it is not a very fast runner.

Photo: Echidna curled up in a ball with spines

Photo: Echidna burying itself in the ground

Its next strategy is the curl up into a spiky ball, protecting its underbelly and head and exposing only its dangerous spines to its assailant. Very few predators would attempt to attack the echidna in this pose.

The echidna's favourite defensive tactic is to use its powerful claws to dig itself into the ground until it is completely covered by soil or firmly embedded into the soil, making it difficult for any predator to dislodge it. It may also try to wedge itself under a rock or log while exposing its spiky spines, making it nearly impossible for an assailant to pull it out.

Echidna Predators & Threats What Treats Do Echidnas Face?

Photo: Echidna crossing a main road

The only native predator of adult echidnas is the Tasmanian Devil. Baby echidnas sometimes fall victim to goannas — native monitor lizards who tear open their nursery burrow and capture spineless little puggles. Snakes, too, venture into nursery burrows and attack the young puggles. Several introduced animals such as dingoes, foxes, feral cats, and dogs are known to attack echidnas. Fortunately, the echidna's spiky defences offer it good protection, and these attacks are rarely successful.

Aborigines have been hunting echidnas since they arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago. They have, however, had little impact on the overall survival of the echidna population. Since the arrival of European settlers in 1778, humans have had a larger impact on the echidna population as a result of land clearing and forest felling. The echidnas, however, are versatile and adaptable animals and don't seem to have been seriously affected by these activities either.

Australian bushfires are the most significant single threat to an echidna. The echidna is too slow to run away. So instead of fleeing it stays put and adapts a rather bizarre survival tactic.

How Echidnas Survive Bushfires Echidna's Unique Bushfire Survival Tactics

Photo: Echidna burying itself against a bushfire

Photo: Echidna walking in bushfire ravaged land

Australian bushfires are terrifying events. Raging fires with flames as high as four-story building tear through tinder-dry vegetation at breakneck speeds, incinerating almost everything in its path and leaving a charred desolate landscape behind.

Many people have noticed that after a bushfire, the only animals that seem unaffected by the catastrophe are echidnas. They have been seen frequently roaming about the burnt-out landscape seemingly untouched. So how do they do it? What survival tricks do they use?

Echidna Conservation Status Is the echidna Endangered?

The echidna is quite common and not considered threatened. It is protected by Australian law.

How Did the Echidna Get its Name? The Echidna is Named After a Greek Goddess

The name Echidna is derived from the Greek name Ekhidna. Because the echidna appeared to be half reptile and half mammal, in 1802 the British anatomist Everard Home named this unusual animal after the Greek goddess Ekhidna (meaning "she viper") who was half-snake and half-woman.

Echidna and the Mutiny on the Bounty How are They Related?

Photo: HMS Bounty

The first European to describe the echidna was, in fact, none other than William Bligh, the captain of the sailing ship the HMS Bounty of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. The Bounty was on its way to Tahiti in 1792 when it stopped at Adventure Bay in Tasmania. There Bligh reported that the animal had a bill like a duck and a thick brown coat of hair with quills. A member of the crew shot an echidna and later roasted it, reporting that it had a "delicious flavour".

25 Echidna Facts

  1. The echidna is an egg-laying mammal. This is very unusual because mammals usually don't lay eggs.
  2. The name Echidna is pronounced ih-KID-na.
  3. Its scientific name is Tachyglossus aculeatus, meaning quick tongue + equipped with spines. It is also referred to as a Spiny Anteater.
  4. The echidna is an example of what early mammals may have been like–egg-layers.
  5. They have roundish bodies covered with sharp beige and black spines.
  6. However, unlike a porcupine whose quills detach and embed themselves in their attacker, an echidna's spines do not detach.
  7. They are somewhat similar in appearance to hedgehogs.
  8. There are only two species of echidna: the short-beaked echidna and the long-beaked echidna.
  9. Males and females are similar in appearance.
  10. But the female is about 25% larger.
  11. The echidna has very poor eyesight.
  12. But it makes up for this with an excellent sense of hearing and smell.
  13. The echidna has no external ears but has funnel-like slits on either side of its head.
  14. It has a slender, elongated rubbery snout called a beak.
  15. From which it sticks out a long sticky tongue to catch its prey.
  16. Its tongue can flick in and out up 100 times a minute.
  17. The echidna's diet consists of termites and ants.
  18. The echidna has no stomach. Its gullet connects directly to its intestine.
  19. Echidnas have a body temperature of 5-8°C lower than other mammals.
  20. It has only one rear opening called a cloaca. Other mammals have two.
  21. Echidnas have a small neocortex, the most recent part of the brain to evolve.
  22. The female echidna lays a small, leathery egg and places it in her pouch where the egg hatches.
  23. She has no nipples or teats like other mammals. Instead, it oozes milk through its skin and the baby laps it up
  24. An echidna baby is called a puggle.
  25. The lifespan of an echidna is 15-40 years.

An Excerpt from the Original TrishansOz Page

(Excerpt from the original TrishansOz page written in 1997 when Trishan was 11 years old.)

An echidna is about 50 cm long, and it is dome-shaped. It has short sharp spikes covering its body (like a porcupine). It has a short pointy snout and a sticky tongue with which it catches ants and termites. It has no teeth. The echidna has very sharp claws too and can burrow underground very quickly. An echidna has short stubby feet and waddles when it walks.

When it gets frightened, it raises its spikes to defend itself and tries to dig itself into the ground.

Echidnas adapt their activity according to the climate they are in. In hotter climates, they are nocturnal, coming out only during the cooler hours of the night. In cooler climates, they more diurnal, coming out during the day to forage for food.

You can see how the echidna is trying to hide in the photograph.

My dog Sage once tried to catch an Echidna and hurt his tongue.