Echidnas (ih-KID-nahz), also called spiny anteaters, are solidly
built, short-legged, shuffling mammals that can grow fairly large,
up to 14 pounds (6.5 kilograms) for the short-beaked (or short-
nosed) echidna and up to 20 pounds (9 kilograms) for the long-
beaked (or long-nosed). Head and body length in an adult
short-beaked echidna can reach 21 inches (53 centimeters), the
stubby tail adding another 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). Head and
body length in adult long-beaked echidnas gets as long as 30.5
inches (77.5 centimeters), and the tail, like that of the short-
beaked echidna, is a mere stubby shoot. Male echidnas are larger
than females. Although echidnas may look overweight, most of
the soft tissue mass that might be mistaken for blubber is mus-
cle, lots of it.
The two species look similar but some differences are obvi-
ous, especially the snout, which is made of bone, cartilage, and
keratin (what claws and fingernails are made of). The snout is
shorter and straight or slightly upturned in the short-beaked
echidna, but longer, thinner, and downcurving, like the bill of
a nectar-sipping bird, in the long-beaked echidna. An echidna’s
head is small and the neck is not obvious, so that the head
seems to flow directly into the body.
Echidnas have full coats of brown or black hair, with scat-
tered, hollow spines, which are really modified hairs, studding
the body on the back and sides. The spines are yellow with
black tips in some animals, and up to 2.4 inches (6 centime-
ters) long. In short-beaked echidnas, the spines are longer than
the fur, so that the spines are noticeable, but the coat of the
long-beaked echidna is just the opposite: the fur is long enough
to cover most of the spines.
The four legs are short, with powerful muscles and claws,
proper for an animal that frequently digs in the soil and tears
open logs and termite mounds. The hind feet point backwards,
and are used to push soil away and out when the animal is
The short-beaked echidna lives throughout Australia,
Tasmania, and the lowlands of New Guinea. The long-beaked
echidna lives only in the New Guinea highlands.
The short-beaked echidna lives wherever its main food
sources, ants and termites, are abundant enough to keep it fed,
allowing the species to occupy nearly all habitat types in Aus-
tralia and New Guinea, from tropical rainforest and grassland
to desert. The long-beaked echidna is confined to alpine mead-
ows up to 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) above sea level, and to
humid mountain forests in the New Guinea highlands.
The short-beaked echidna feeds mainly on ants and termites,
but varies its menu with beetles, and grubs, and the like. The
animal forages (searches for food) usually by day, or in early
morning and evening during very hot weather. It digs up soil,
and tears open rotten logs and termite mounds to get at its food.
The diet of a long-beaked echidna is almost entirely earth-
worms, but it varies its diet with insects. The long-beaked
echidna feeds at night, poking around in the soil and the blan-
ket of fallen leaves and other litter on the forest floor, sniffing
for worms and insects.
ECHINDAS BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Echidnas are monotremes, their only living relative being the
platypus, and the three species together are the only living, egg-
laying mammals. The mother echidna bears a single, small egg
with a leathery shell that she tucks into a temporary pouch,
where the offspring will hatch and nurse itself on milk excreted
through pores (but no nipples) in the mother’s skin within the
If threatened, an echidna has several options for defense. It
can run, climb a tree, or swim. Echidnas do these things quite
well. It can wedge itself into a small cranny between rocks, an-
choring itself with its paws and spines. If in the open, the
echidna can dig itself a hole well within a minute, burying it-
self, leaving some of the spines on its back poking above the
soil as a final barrier.
ECHIDNAS AND PEOPLE
Echidnas are not as well known as the platypus, but they
fascinate naturalists and zoologists for the same reasons: they
lay eggs, have a combination of reptilian and mammalian char-
acteristics, and remind us of a time when reptiles were evolv-
ing into mammals.
The short-beaked echidna is still plentiful in Australia,
and has no special conservation status listing at present. The
long-beaked echidna of New Guinea, on the other hand, is far-
ing poorly. Its forest habitat is being cleared for logging, min-
ing, and agriculture, and people hunt the echidna for food with
packs of trained dogs. Because of these threats, the long-beaked
echidna is listed as Endangered.