Australia’s native Echidna is a unique species that continues to puzzle researchers and scientists. Unchanged since prehistoric times, these peculiar egg-laying mammals are part of a group of five monotremes, including the four echidna species and the platypus.
Echidna’s have no teeth and their beady eyes don’t help them to see well, but they have a very acute sense of hearing and smell, allowing them to find food and identify threats.
The short-beaked echidna has dark fur covered by barbless quills called spines all over its back and sides. The long-beaked species have significantly less fur with beige and black spines that are more visible. On both species, spines grow to about five centimeters long which help them to camouflage and hide from predators.
To locate their food, Echidnas have electroreceptors in the skin of their beak which helps them sense electrical signals produced in the muscles of insects.
Once they locate their prey, they quickly tear into the mound or nest with their sharp claws. Not having teeth doesn’t complicate eating as they have a 15 centimeter long tongue to catch and chew food such as ants, termites or earthworms.
They have hard pads in their mouth at the base of their tongue, as well as on the roof of their mouth, that allow them to grind their food into a paste that can be swallowed.
Usually solitary animals, echidnas will congregate during breeding season between July and August where a female will be followed by a train of suitors.
A single egg, about the size of a grape, is laid once a year and kept in the mother’s pouch. After 10 days, the egg hatches a baby echidna, called a puggle. Unlike mammals, echidnas don’t have teats, so the puggle feeds her milk by gripping mammary hairs in the mother’s pouch.
Once the puggle starts growing spines at 2 months old, the mother returns to the nursery burrow where the puggle lives to feed it every 5 to 10 days. The young echidna becomes independent at around 7 months old.
The short legs of the Echidna are ideal for digging, with hind legs that point backward and extra-long claws that can be used to scratch out dirt and bugs.
Echidna’s dig for their prey and also for protection, digging straight into the dirt until only their spiny rear can be seen. In this position, predators find it very difficult to pull it out.
To hide its face and feet, the Echidna will curl into a tight, spikey ball. They are also surprisingly good swimmers and tree climbers.
Habitat and Ecology
Echidna’s play a crucial role as ‘ecosystem engineers’. As digging for food and shelter is integral for their survival, Echidna’s inhabit areas with looser topsoil such as scrubland, desert and montane forest.
By routinely turning over soil, they help to reduce compaction, mix soil with ground covers (like leaves and twigs) and assist water penetration.
As efficient ‘bioturbators’, they reduce run-off and prevent erosion. By nurturing soil health, Echidnas ultimately improve plant growth and species diversity.
Near the End?
Different species of Echidna have varying conservation status’. Although the short-beaked echidna is listed as of least concern, the long-beaked species is critically endangered and it has been speculated that the species may actually already be extinct. The Western long-beaked Echidna is critically endangered and the Eastern long-beaked Echidna is vulnerable.
Without doubt, the Echidna’s population is steadily declining. Fires and droughts are partly responsible, as well as threats such as feral dogs, cats, dingoes and foxes. Cars are also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Echidnas on Australia’s roads each year.
Probably the greatest threat to the echidna is habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by farmland, urban and industrial development and other types of high-impact land use, like infrastructure projects.
Help Us to Protect the Echidna
The NSW Government’s plan to raise the Warragamba Dam wall by 17 meters would be detrimental to the Echidna population. Leading ecologists have said this development will drown habitat critical to the survival of the already dwindling Echidna population in the area.
The survival of the Echidna, our native forests and our precious wildlife depend on people like you who share our love of nature.