Physical characteristics: The short-beaked echidna is a compact,
heavily muscled, short-legged creature covered with fur and an array
of sharp spines. From a distance, it looks and moves something like
a porcupine. Up close, it looks less like a porcupine and more like a
waddling shrub of grass-like leaves and sharp thorns with a long,
probing twig (the snout) at the forward end.
Adult short-beaked echidnas range in head and body length
from 14 to 21 inches (35 to 53 centimeters), the stubby tail adding
another 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters). Males weigh about 14 pounds
(6 kilograms), while females weigh about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).
The pelt (fur) varies in color and thickness throughout the species’
range, being darker and thicker as one moves south. In northern Aus-
tralia, echidna pelts are light brown, while in Tasmania they are black.
Geographic range: Australia, Tasmania, and the lowlands of New
Habitat: The short-beaked echidna can live in nearly any habitat where
it can count on a steady food supply of ants and termites. This adapt-
ability has allowed the species to occupy nearly all habitat types in Aus-
tralia and New Guinea, from tropical rainforest and grassland to desert.
Diet: Short-beaked echidnas are ground foragers that feed by wan-
dering across fields and forest floors, sniffing and lightly poking at
the soil with their hard snouts, then gouging out dirt with their pow-
erful legs and claws from an area where the animal has detected ants,
termites, worms, or other soil-living creatures. Or, an echidna may
tear open a rotten log to get at ants, or a termite mound for termites.
Once an echidna has exposed the insects or worms, it shoots out its
long, ropy, sticky tongue, laps up the insects, then reels in the tongue,
loaded along its length with up to twenty insects at a time.
Behavior and reproduction: Short-beaked echidnas have one annual
breeding season, July through August. Courtship behavior in echidnas
is a sight not soon forgotten, since several males will follow single
file in an “echidna train” behind a female for one to six weeks. Sooner
or later, the female halts and the males encircle her continuously,
gouging out a circle of dirt around her. The female at last selects one
male from the gang and mates with him, after which the two part and
go separate ways. Fathers do not help with raising the young.
About twenty-four days after mating, the female lays her egg. When
the mother senses that the egg is ready to emerge, she lays on her
back and guides it as it slowly rolls down and over her underbelly
and into the pouch, which closes to hold and shelter the egg.
A newly hatched echidna is the size of a jellybean. The mother car-
ries the hatchling in her pouch for fifty to fifty-five days. She then re-
moves the youngster and hides it in a burrow or cave, returning every
five days to nurse the infant. The youngster is able to move about and
forage but continues to nurse until it is six months old, and becomes
independent at one year of age.
To protect itself, a short-beaked echidna may wedge itself into
small spaces in burrows, rocks, or tree roots, where it can secure it-
self by using its claws and spines to wedge its body within the space.
If caught in the open, the echidna can roll itself into a ball, head and
legs tucked underneath and the protective spines pointing outward.
It can also burrow and bury itself in the soil within a minute, leav-
ing only its topmost spines visible as a final defense.
Short-beaked echidnas and people: Most people in Australia are
either fond of echidnas or indifferent toward them. They are not con-
sidered pest animals.
Conservation status: Short-beaked echidnas are protected by law
in Australia, and are plentiful there, since they can adapt to a wide
range of habitats. Despite their high population, their numbers are
declining. Research on short-beaked echidnas is ongoing at Pelican
Lagoon Research Center on Kangaroo Island, Australia.