What fascinating little animals are our echidnas who together with the only other Monotreme, the Platypus, are the only egg laying mammals in the world. They have survived from ancient times and are regarded as the link between reptiles and mammals.
Known as short-beaked echidnas and also spiny-anteaters they were incorrectly called porcupines by the early settlers. They are distributed throughout Australia occurring from highlands to coastal areas and are also present in Papua New Guinea where the long-beaked echidna, a much larger animal, also resides in remote areas.
Distinctive with its coat of quills, the echidna is a small but powerful little animal with short limbs and strong claws able to move surprisingly large objects. Nature has provided a long curved claw on the second toe to clean its spiny coat interspersed with fur. The vulnerable underbelly is soft so for protection it will curl up into a tight spiny ball or quickly dig vertically down into the soil depending on its quills to give protection. If wedged among rocks it is practically immoveable.
At times they can move very quickly over the ground undeterred by rough country where they like to forage for their specialised diet of ants and termites. They tend to turn up at any time in different habitats, even in gardens, searching out ant nests with their sensitive snouts. Once they locate an ant’s nest they will tear it apart with their claws while their long tapering sticky tongues quickly gather up the swarming occupants and crush them with sharp spines on the roof of their mouths (no teeth) before swallowing. The thick coat of mucous covering the tongue protects Echidnas from ant stings.
Echidnas lead solitary lives and only come together to mate which is usually from late winter to early spring. At this time they may be more visible as the males go in search of females and it is common to see a line of male echidnas as they make their way through the undergrowth. Sadly this is when many are killed on the roads as they attempt to cross in the search for a suitor.
It is now believed that the pair mate by lying together on their sides. After mating the female incredibly grows a simple pouch on her abdomen which will initially carry the single egg around while it is incubating, about 10 days, and then protecting and feeding the baby echidna, known as a “puggle”, for about 7 weeks. The mother has milk glands but no teats however the baby licks the milk as it exudes through the skin.
How does that newly-laid soft-shelled egg get into the pouch? It is now believed that the female gives birth while lying on her back and special muscles help roll the egg into the back opening pouch. When the baby feels prickly from developing quills the mother places the puggle into a hollow log or burrow returning to feed it every few days until at about 6 months the young emerges with its new set of quills and ready to soon start its solitary life.
The fact that the female echidna carries her egg around while it is incubating must be one of the marvels of the world. The great egg-laying group, the birds, have to stay still while incubating the egg.
Although echidnas are still classed as common, we are not commonly seeing them in this area like we used to. Last spring a number were seen after a gap of several years. Let’s hope that it means there is still a healthy population existing here.
Article - Janet Whish-Wilson.
Photographs - Ester Inbar, Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble.