ECHIDNAS – [Tachyglossidae]

ECHIDNAS CHARACTERISTICS

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

burrowing.

GEOGRAPHIC RANGE

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.

Echidna Habitat

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.

Echidna DIET

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

pouch.

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.

CONSERVATION STATUS

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.