For as long as I have known about echidna, I’ve wanted to see one. Something about the whole mammal that lays eggs thing that is just so weird but totally intriguing. So every time I’ve been out in the wilds of Australia, I’ve been looking for one of these spiky little critters. But alas I’d been unsuccessful, despite spotting plenty of signs that echidna were in the neighbourhood.
That is until I went to the Dryandra Woodland in Western Australia. We were on a walk that was touted for its abundance of woylie diggings and numbats. We saw plenty of diggings but no numbats and were lamenting this fact towards the end of the walk when there was a noise in the undergrowth caught our attention.
Often referred to as spiny anteaters, echidna are covered in spines and coarse hair and have a long slender snout. They tend to be solitary and are powerful diggers with strong legs and claws. I think that echidna diggings look superficially like a turtle has been flailing about in the leaves (others may just think I’m weird!). Echidna feed on ants, termites, worms and insect larvae which they dig out of rotting logs and anthills. They don’t have any teeth, instead collecting prey with a long, sticky tongue that protrudes from their snout.
As I eluded to earlier, echidna are monotremes – mammals that lay eggs. This is clearly an unusual strategy, with platypus making up the only one other group of monotremes. I had always assumed that laying eggs meant that echidna would build nests. But it turns out that female echidna actually lay a single leathery egg and carry it around in a rear-facing pouch similar to the pouches of marsupials. The egg hatches after about 10 days and the puggle (the name for a baby echidna) spends about 2-3 months hanging out in the pouch. It suckles from patches in the skin that secrete milk as monotremes don’t have nipples. Once the puggle begins to develop spines, it gets kicked out of the pouch (fair enough!) and into a nursery burrow. The female echidna will return every five days or so to feed the puggle until it gets weaned at about seven months.
Echidna are found throughout Australia and New Guinea, with three recognised genera. Only one species occurs in Australia, the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus). The name echidna comes from greek mythology – Echidna was half woman, half snake and was mother of all monsters (she sounds like a charmer!).