Echidna Spiny Anteater

Koala sleeping in a tree

Photo: Echidna walking

The echidna, also known as a spiny anteater, is a small egg-laying mammal covered in prickly spines. It is a monotreme—an animal with mammalian and reptilian characteristics. For example, it lays eggs like a bird or reptile but feeds its baby milk like a mammal!

The name Echidna is pronounced ih-KID-na. Its scientific name is Tachyglossus aculeatus, meaning "quick tongue and equipped with spines". It is also called a Spiny Anteater. Despite its slight resemblance to a hedgehog, the echidna is not a hedgehog. They are genetically and geographically worlds apart. The average lifespan of an echidna is around 16 years.

Echidna Description What is an Echidna?

Echidna ear, eyes, snot and claw

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

The echidna is a small dome-shaped egg-laying animal covered with sharp beige and black spines. It is 30-45 cm (12-18 inches) long and weighs 2 -7 kilos (4.4-15.5lb). The echidna has coarse reddish to dark brown fur and pointed hollow keratin spines formed from modified hairs. These spines 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. The male and female echidna look the same externally. You can only tell an echidna's gender by examining it internally or observing them during copulation.

Echidna's snout with electroreceptors

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 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.

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, but not suitable for running or walking. In fact, the echidna has a maximum speed of 2.3kph and a leisurely walk of just 1khp. The echidna’s 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 the extra long claw on its second toe to comb and scratch debris from its fur and spines.

The echidna has only one opening at the end of its body called a cloaca, into which its digestive, reproductive, and urinary tracts release connect. This is a common characteristic among birds and reptiles but rarely occurs in mammals.

Echidna Habitat & Distribution Where Do Echidnas Live?

Echidna distribution and habitat map

Photo: Echidna habitat map

The smaller short-beaked echidna is found in Australia and New Guinea, and the larger long-beaked echidna is found only in New Guinea.

Echidnas live in many habitats, from snow-covered mountains to deserts and even urban areas. They rest and sleep among rocks, hollow logs, holes among tree roots, hiding in leaf litter or sometimes occupying wombat or rabbit burrows. Although people rarely see echidnas, they are widespread and relatively common. The short-beaked echidna lives in Australia and New Guinea, and the long-beaked echidna is only found in the highlands of New Guinea.

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?

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'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 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 Echidna Reproduction

echidna baby puggle

Photo: Echidna baby called a puggle

Being solitary animals, echidnas only socialise during the mating season from June to September. At this time, up to 11 males echidnas form a line, sometimes referred to as a “love train”, and follow a female. Usually, the successful suitor is the male who stuck closest to her the longest. Echidnas copulate (mate) by lying on their sides with their spineless undersides facing each other. Then, the male extends his large four-pronged penis and inserts it into the female’s cloaca for impregnation.

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 and incubates the egg for 7-10 days. When it is ready to hatch, the baby echidna, known as a puggle, uses its eye-tooth to tear through its leathery shell. It exists into the pouch and uses its tiny forelimbs to hold onto the fur in its mother’s pouch. The mother echidna does not have nipples or teats like other mammals. Instead, it oozes milk through its skin which the puggle licks up rapidly.

A puggle stays in its mother’s pouch for about three months. Once the puggle’s spines develop, its mother encourages it to spend more and more 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.

Echidna Swimming Can Echidnas Swim?

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.

Echidna rolled up inot a ball

Photo: Echidna curled up in a ball with spines

Echidna Burying itself

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?

echidna crossing a busy road

Photo: Echidna crossing a main road

The only native predator of adult echidnas is the Tasmanian Devil. However, 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. In addition, 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 significantly impacted the echidna population due to land clearing and forest felling. The echidnas, however, are 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

Echidna digging itself underground for protection against bushfire

Photo: Echidna burying itself against a bushfire

Echidna after a bushfire

Photo: Echidna walking in bushfire ravaged land

Australian bushfires are terrifying events. Raging fires with flames as high as a four-story building race through tinder-dry vegetation, incinerating almost everything in their 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?

HMS Bounty

Photo: HMS Bounty

The first European to describe the echidna was 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. Echidnas are the oldest surviving mammal. Their prehistoric ancestors first appeared on earth about 220 million years ago.
  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.
  5. They have roundish bodies covered with sharp beige and black spines up to 50mm long.
  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. But the male is about 25% larger than the female.
  10. The echidna has very poor eyesight. But it makes up for this with an excellent sense of hearing and smell.
  11. The echidna has no external ears but has funnel-like slits on either side of its head.
  12. It has a slender, elongated rubbery snout called a beak.
  13. From which it sticks out a long sticky tongue to catch its prey.
  14. Its tongue can flick in and out up to 100 times a minute.
  15. The echidna's diet consists of termites and ants.
  16. The echidna has no stomach. Instead, its gullet connects directly to its intestine.
  17. Echidnas have a body temperature between 31-32°C (88-89.5°F), which is 5- 8°C (41-46°F) lower than other mammals.
  18. To prevent overheating, the echidna blows snot bubbles from its nose that evaporates and cools the blood vessels just under its skin.
  19. Echidnas have one of the low metabolic rates among all mammals. During winter, they enter semi-hibernation, reducing their heart rate to only four beats per minute.
  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

Dan and me watching an echidna

(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.