Three year round-up

We’ve nearly been in Australia for three years – the anniversary of our arrival is on 27 August – and last weekend we finally saw a platypus in the wild. This is the last of the more famous Australian animals that we hadn’t seen in the wild, and so it’s a landmark of sorts. The irony is that it was only round the corner – it’s just that platypus are shy brown creatures that live in a large muddy river, and as ever knowing when and where to look made all the difference. In my defence it was at Wombat Bend, which is probably not the most obvious place you’d choose to look for platypus. The picture at the top shows Ginny and Felix on the suspension bridge there waiting to spot one.

Platypus, of course, deserve a complete blog post to themselves which I will do later, perhaps when I have some better photos. In the one shot I managed to get you can clearly make out that it is a platypus, but it’s not exactly wildlife photographer of the year material.

It’s winter here now, so there aren’t quite as many animals around and the weather isn’t quite as conducive to getting out and finding them. The picture below is the archetypal Australian corrugated roof, on part of the Yarra Valley Dairy (yum!) during a bit of a storm. You certainly know about the rain if you’re underneath a roof like that!

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So given it’s winter and now we’ve hit our platypus milestone I thought it would be a good point to have a bit of a review of those crazy Aussie animals. I’ll arrange it by location, and then how likely you are to see the various creatures.

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Outside our front door

Immediately around us you’ll mostly see birds. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see cockatoos and magpies – there are some very large ones around at the moment (see above), as well as noisy miners. Kookaburras are pretty common – they do their rounds in family groups cackling away at dawn and dusk on dead branches (or tv aerials). Also common are rainbow lorikeets and crimson rosellas plus various smaller cockatoos such as corellas and galahs.

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If you walk up to Aqueduct trail (above) you’ll see plenty of kangaroos, particularly at dawn or dusk. If you’re lucky you might see a wedge-tailed eagle or two – if you see a big (really big!) bird of prey in the sky that would be them. You’re more likely to hear a possum than see one – if you hear a herd of elephants sprinting across the roof that’s them – but if you go out with a torch at night you’ve got a good chance of seeing one in a tree.

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If you go poking around in the shed you might find a huntsman or redback spider, but you probably won’t. Similarly there are certainly tiger snakes around, but you’re very unlikely to see one. If you’re lucky you might see a flock of black cockatoos come through, or a pair of king parrots.

Around Eltham

Down at Westerfolds Park and around are plenty of wombats and echidnas, as well as the ubiquitous kangaroos – Felix and I saw two boomers having a proper scrap last Saturday during parkrun. Wombats and echidnas hang out in the parks and reserves by the Yarra, both upstream to Candlebark Park, Petty’s Orchards, Laughing Waters, Warrandyte and beyond, or downstream to Finn’s Reserve, Banyule Flats and so on. However we have never (yet) seen a wombat here – they tend to be properly nocturnal which is not usually when you go to parks. They leave behind plenty of evidence though! Echidnas are around – I have seen one trundling across our drive, but many more down in the parks, but they’re not that common and you need to be lucky.

There are tawny frogmouths around, but your chances of seeing one are slim – their camouflage is superb, but if you keep looking up into gum trees you might be lucky.

Lastly if you go to the suspension bridge at Wombat Bend in Finn’s Reserve and are patient you have a very good chance of seeing a platypus. You do need to be patient though – Felix and I saw one almost immediately, but the next wasn’t spotted for nearly an hour. I know people who have seen them in Diamond Creek near Eltham High School, but they were pretty lucky.

Below is the TarraWarra winery in late autumn, looking towards the Yarra ranges on a stormy day that still had a few patches of sun. There are definitely worse places in the world to be – and the wine’s pretty good too!

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Elsewhere in Victoria

Let’s start with the big one on everyone’s list, koalas. There used to be some around Pound Bend in Warrandyte, but apparently they died out in the Millennium drought. So the place to go is down the Great Ocean Road to Cape Otway – you’ll definitely see them down there – the easiest way to find them is to find a group of people standing by the car looking up!

You can see little penguins down on St Kilda pier in the city, but there aren’t very many. The penguin parade down at Phillip Island is quite impressive if you’re fond of them, but is very commercialised and not cheap. There are various other types of sea-life you can see from the shore or boat trips, especially seals and dolphins. If you get out in the sticks a bit you may well see sea eagles, ibis and pelicans too.

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Above is a track up on Mount Macedon on a cloudy day in winter. If you head up into the ranges (also Healesville, the Dandenongs or Toolangi and many others) you might see lyrebirds, fairy wrens and goannas as well as plenty of parrots and kookaburras.

We’ve seen lots of emus and wombats down at Wilson’s Prom, but I don’t know anywhere else you will see them reliably. Almost all the animals down there are semi-tame, and it really is a beautiful spot.

Lastly you probably don’t want to see a drop bear, but if you must then the more remote areas of bush are where they hang out. Try Toolangi or the far end of Kinglake and don’t forget the Vegemite.

Other states

There are some tropical-only animals that you simply won’t find in Victoria because it’s just too cold. Crocodiles are plentiful nowadays, but do take a guided boat trip, don’t go looking by yourself! Cassowaries are pretty rare – there are estimated to be about 1,000 in Australia, all up in the tropical rainforests of the far north. If you’re desperate to see big pythons (everything grows bigger up north!) they’re up here too.

Humpback whales do come through Victorian waters, but you’re more likely to see them further round on the east coast as they migrate north in late autumn and south in spring. Similarly there are some dingoes in Victoria, but you’re much more likely to see them in other more northerly states. We’ve seen them on Fraser Island – as is so often the case dawn and dusk are the best times.

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Flower break – I know proteas (above) are South African rather than Australian, but they’re grown around here and still look impossibly exotic to my UK eye.

Last, and most definitely not least are a couple of Tasmanian specialities. Sadly thylacines are no more, but there are stuffed ones in Hobart museums. There are probably some in other state museums, but I’m not sure. And finally there are, of course, Tasmanian devils. Oops! I’ve just realised we haven’t seen one of those in the wild yet! We’ve heard them at night, but I think we’d better get planning our next trip down there to finish what we started…

I shall leave you with a picture of a kangaroo looking silly, because why not?

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Humpback Whales

I’d never seen a whale before we came to Australia – although various species do come into UK waters there aren’t many opportunities to see them. However there are lots around Australia – in particular humpback whales as they migrate up both east and west coasts from the Antarctic to the tropics to breed, and then go back again – up to 25,000km in a year (that’s an average of 68km a day!). I’ve only seen humpbacks, but you also get right whales and blue whales down on the south coast. As is so often the case with wildlife spotting it’s all about being in the right place at the right time (and looking the right way!) – but the internet can really help with this.

You could write books and books about whales (and of course many people have), from the science of their fascinating natural lives through to the complex interactions with humans, who did their best to wipe them out but happily seem to be largely trying to get along nowadays. I’m not going to try to cover this vast range of information, but instead say a few things about humpbacks, and try to dig out some interesting facts you might not know.

My first whale watching trip was from Hervey Bay up near Fraser Island. It’s a great place to go whale watching – nice and warm, and Fraser makes a good backdrop:

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Anyway, before we got to that tail, and as we set off excitement was pretty high as you might imagine. The first whales were spotted by the captain, and he moved the boat towards them. There are pretty strict regulations about how close you can get to whales and dolphins, and from what I’ve seen these are well respected, but humpbacks are curious creatures and will often come over and investigate boats. So I was well chuffed to look down and see my first whale just sitting there, right underneath the boat:

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After clicking away from different angles and marvelling at my luck, I eventually started to wonder why the whale was quite so still, and finally realised I’d been taking pictures of the protruding keel of the boat. Doh!

Another time we really did get one swimming right under the boat – here it is approaching:

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…and then it briefly surfaced before diving. I’d always thought whales’ blow holes were just that – a single hole – but as you can clearly see here it’s much more like a backwards-facing nose. However unlike our noses whales can close theirs when diving.

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Let’s take a step back though. Humpbacks are large whales – they get up to 16m long and 36 tonnes, although the biggest blue whales probably get up to 30m and over 180 tonnes. It’s difficult to compare with dinosaurs, as fossils of the largest sauropods are fragmentary, but argentinosaurus has been estimated at 40m long and 95 tonnes. The largest tyrannosaurus (called Sue) was 12.3m long, and up to 14 tonnes. So even though humpbacks aren’t quite in the very top echelons of big beasts, they’re definitely in the megafauna premier league and substantially larger than any terrestrial animals.

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How do they get that big? They eat a lot of krill, about 2-2.5 tonnes a day during the feeding season – they fast on the way up and back from the tropics. When I was younger I assumed that zooplankton (which includes krill and many other little beasties) was pretty tiny – microscopic to a few mm. Actually krill are typically up to 2cm long, and some species are up to 15cm, which is small prawn-size in my book. Humpbacks will also eat small fish, such as juvenile salmon or herring etc. And humpbacks are not shy about doing this, either – they charge into schools of fish and take great gulps of water. They can gulp up to 19,000 litres at a time, so don’t ever offer to buy a whale a drink! This balloons out their flexible cheeks and then they use their baleen to filter out the water and keep the fish. Sometimes they get together and blow rings of bubbles to surround fish, and then swim up the middle to scoff them all.

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It’s estimated that there are about 379,000,000 tonnes of krill in the Antarctic, which is a fair bit more than the estimated total human biomass of 350M tonnes. In fact it’s thought to be one of the highest biomasses of any single species – domestic cattle beat it at 520M tonnes, and surprisingly earthworms come in at up to 7,600M tonnes. That’s an awful lot of worms! Anyway it’s certainly plenty of krill for the whales – there are an estimated 50,000 humpbacks in the southern hemisphere, and another 30,000 in the northern (the pre-whaling estimate is 125,000, and hopefully we might regain that one day).

 

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Humpbacks are sociable creatures, and communicate in a number of ways including singing. Their songs can be up to 30 minutes long, but we don’t know the exact purpose. I like to think that maybe they just enjoy it. They also breach (jump up out of the water) – I’ve seen this once, but completely failed to get a picture of it – however many others have. If you’re on a boat next to one doing this you are going to get seriously wet! Humpbacks also like to slap the water with their tails, and I’ve got plenty of pictures of this. Again, this seems to be for communication of some sort, but no-one knows what yet. However because of the significant energy expended in both breaching and tail-slapping it’s thought it must mean something – they can’t just be having fun, can they?

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All humpbacks have unique tails, and the pattern of notches, angles, scars and barnacles etc means you can use this to identify them. That’s particularly useful as it’s easier to get a picture of the tail than many other parts of them! I’m afraid I have no idea if the whale above has been identified – unfortunately it seems that people are still better than computers at matching tails, and it’s a really boring job!

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To finish with I’ll share my closest encounter with a whale. We stopped off for a couple of days at Noosa on the way back from Fraser Island – it’s a nice place, a little commercialised but not unpleasantly so. But because it’s a bit commercialised that means powered water fun, and Felix was desperate to have a go on a jet ski. Can’t say I found the idea unappealing either, although it’s definitely not Elliot or Ginny’s thing. So Felix and I hired one and off we went, through the lagoon and then out to the sea. We knew there were whales around and were keeping our eyes open, but hadn’t spotted any. Felix was driving the jet ski around, and tried doing doughnuts, spinning it around. I was on the back, and as it went around and around in tighter circles it leaned more and more. Eventually it leaned so much I couldn’t hang on and fell off the side, whereupon the jet ski straightened up and Felix powered off, cackling with glee. What neither of us had realised was there was a huge humpback swimming very close to us. Felix slowed down and I swam over to him, and we saw the whale briefly surface before it cruised off. I dined out on the story of my own son dumping me in front of a whale for ages…

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Black Cockatoos

The usual white (aka sulphur crested) cockatoos are everywhere around here, but every now and then we get a flock of black ones come through, and they are so much cooler. They’re bigger, they have a neat call, and of course they dress in black. In fact their scientific name, psittacus funereus, is because George Shaw, who named them, thought they looked as though they were heading to a funeral. There are several types of black cockatoo around Australia, including the red-tailed and the huge palm cockatoo plus a variety of lesser-known species, but the ones we see are the yellow-tailed black cockatoos. As well as the yellow panel on their tails they also have yellow patches towards the rear of their heads.

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They tend to fly around in couples as above, sometimes also with their young, and often as much larger groups like below.

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This was part of a much larger flock, easily over 30, that came through the pine trees up on Aqueduct Trail near us. Happily I had my camera with me with a slightly longer lens than usual and managed to get some pics.

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They hung out in the pine trees, grabbing pine cones, stripping them of their seeds and making quite a racket as they did so – they’re not quite as raucous as the sulphur crested cockatoos, but they do squawk a bit as well as making their cool wailing noise.

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Eventually they made so much noise they set off a local family of kookaburras, and it did sound a bit like world war three with the two sets of birds trying to out-do each other.

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Another time we saw a smaller flock in the depths of Toolangi. I had my longest lens, but it was an overcast day and pretty dark under the canopy, and we couldn’t get very close to them, so it was tricky to get any good shots:

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Lastly this isn’t the greatest shot technically, but it makes the large beak very clear, and you can see the tail feathers are getting a bit lacy on this one.

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So there we have my favourite goths of the bird world. We don’t see them that often, but they’re always a welcome sight when they do turn up. Now excuse me while I go and put some Sisters of Mercy on for them…

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Tiger Snakes

More reptiles! Australia’s snakes are pretty much as (in)famous as its spiders, and they certainly rate very highly in a lot of excitable venom lists. The two most common snakes around here are the tiger snake and common (or eastern) brown snake, although we’ve seen a few tigers now and no browns. However snake identification is notoriously difficult – tiger snakes are usually striped (hence the name), but can range from plain light brown – like a brown snake – to almost black. To add to the confusion brown snakes can be striped. However because both are highly venomous, like most other Australian snakes, the answer is simple – stay away from all of them!

Of course you’re probably thinking that’s easier said than done – but actually it is. Snakes do not eat people, and so will not actively chase you unless you wind them up. I suppose there’s the highly unlikely possibility of a particularly large amethystine python going after a particularly small person, but they only hang out in tropical Queensland anyway. Snakes just want to get away from people, and will generally just slither off if they hear you coming. Given the amount of racket we tend to make as a family this may be why we’ve seen relatively few.

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You will see plenty of signs around warning of snakes, but you’re far more likely to see a sign than a snake. There are spray-painted warnings on the path I cycle on by Ruffey Creek on the way to work but I’ve never seen one there. In fact I don’t think we saw a snake until we’d been in Australia for well over a year – they’re around, but they like to stay well out of your way.

You do need to be a little conscious of your behaviour though – I wouldn’t recommend wandering through long grass, in particular if it’s close to water, and don’t stick your hands in any holes (but you weren’t going to do that in Australia anyway, were you?!). Treading on a snake is a good way to get bitten, which is why most trail races here insist you take at least one and sometimes two compression bandages with you. I do wonder a little about mountain biking too – running over a snake and having the front wheel flick it up towards you seems unpleasantly feasible, but having scoured the MTB forums it seems extremely rare.

The problem with both running and cycling is that because you’re going faster you’re far more likely to crash into a snake unawares, which results in the game every trail runner in Australia plays in summer – is that a stick or a snake? Snakes are ambush predators which means they are well camouflaged and generally very tricky to spot out in the bush:

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We spotted this one on a dirt road out in the Grampians, and it slithered off to the side of the road where I got this photo. Spotting them in amongst the jumble of sticks and leaves that make up the floor of the bush is tricky as you can see!

Here’s another one, this time sunning itself on the dam wall of Trawool Reservoir up on the beautiful Tallarook plateau. We were walking across and luckily Felix spotted it before one of us trod on it – there’s nowhere to run up on top of that dam wall!

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So how dangerous are Australian snakes? Well, you should certainly treat them with respect, and you should also try to avoid getting in contact with them – no walking through long grass, no hands in holes etc. But few people are bitten (~3000 a year), fewer still actually have venom injected (<450) and extremely few are killed (2-3). This compares very favourably to other countries, and indeed is the same as the number of deaths due to wasp or bee stings. So be sensible, but watch out also when you cross the road or go swimming! Top tip – if you are unlucky enough to get bitten, don’t clean the wound – doctors can use any venom left around it to identify the correct anti-venom. And don’t try sucking the venom out – you may feel like a hero but it doesn’t work.

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The other thing to be aware of is that most snake bites happen as a result of people attempting to capture or kill a snake. So don’t try! It’s easy really…

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Goannas

Goanna is the common name for various types of monitor lizards in Australia. They’re the biggest lizards in Australia, getting up to 2.5m long, and almost the world, although they’re beaten by the monstrous Komodo dragon which can exceed 3m. A lot of that length is a long, thin tail, but even so I’d go a bit carefully with a large goanna. Unlike Komodo dragons – which have been known to attack humans – goannas are wary of people and will generally get out of your way unless you provoke them, or if they’ve become accustomed to being fed. This is probably because although they’re nearly as long as Komodo dragons, they’re lightweights by comparison, getting up to a mere 20kg versus a large dragon at up to 166kg.

The fossil record shows that they did once attain gigantic sizes – Megalania got up to approximately 5.5m and 575kg, living until a mere 50,000 years ago and possibly later. Aborigines nowadays who hunt large goannas for food apparently consider them to be ‘high-risk but tasty’ – I wonder what their ancestors thought of Megalania!  NB goannas, like essentially all native animals are protected by law. However like many other indigenous peoples, Aborigines are allowed to hunt them.

There are very few surviving fossils of Megalania, which accounts for the wide range of estimates for it’s size, varying from 4.5m through to a whopping 7m and 1,940kg. Consequently and inevitably this means there are people who think there might still be monsters hidden away in the outback. Fringe science at best I think, but everyone secretly hopes it might just be true!

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Like many names beginning with ‘G’ in Australia (such as Gippsland and Gellibrand), goanna is pronounced with a hard ‘G’, not a soft ‘J’ sound. The name goanna is thought to have evolved from ‘iguana’, although it’s not certain – it could equally well have been from the African name for monitor lizard ‘leguaan’, and brought over on ships stopping around the Cape of Good Hope.

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Goannas live out in the bush and tend not to come near towns and cities. I’ve never seen one in or around Eltham, but we saw lots down at Mallacoota near the NSW border – on ‘Goanna Island’ so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve also seen them while walking on the trails around the Blue Mountains.

To the delight of many Australians earlier this year Samia Lila showed exactly how to evict a pesky goanna when she dragged one by the tail out of the winery where she was working. That’s a definite ’10’ for bravery and sang-froid there!

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Goannas have big claws, and frequently climb trees, both to escape from predators or to go after birds nests for the eggs or chicks. Some of the (very few) people hurt by goannas have been bystanders to other people hassling or attacking a goanna. When the poor beast has tried to escape, it can occasionally mistake a bystander for a tree and climbed up them with understandably painful results. They can also quite happily climb up the walls of houses too, as this resident of Thurgoona found out. Goannas can run fast, and if they really feel the need for speed can rear up and run on their large hind legs. I’ve never seen this but it must be pretty impressive.

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Goannas also feature heavily in both Aboriginal and European settler folklore. The Dirawong, or goanna spirit, is a benevolent being who helps protect people and is associated with rain – definitely a good guy then. There’s a clear similarity between the blotches and stripes on a goanna and Aboriginal dot paintings. European settlers tended towards a more sinister view, attributing sheep-killing, possible child-snatching and hideous incurable venom to them. It’s very unlikely that goannas could ever be responsible for the former two, but it seems they are venomous to some degree.

Don’t let that put you off though – they’re placid creatures that are much more interesting than your average little lizard.

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Huntsmen

When I speak to friends back in the UK about visiting, it’s always the spiders they’re concerned about. Not the crocs, not the crazy drivers and not even the drop bears who are far more likely to hurt you. No, it’s the spiders that people worry about. I’m going to try to set the record straight a bit as I talk about huntsmen. But first here are a few general spidery facts to set the scene:

  • There are only two spiders that are properly dangerous here – the Sydney funnel-web and the redback. However you’re very unlikely to be bitten, and if you are there is anti-venom available. Statistically the far more dangerous thing is anaphylactic reaction to bee or wasp stings.
  • There are plenty of other types of spider, some can certainly be unpleasant and many are (very) large compared to UK spiders, but no others can be deadly. This includes the other species of funnel-web and the white-tail which has a bad rap for causing necrotising arachnidism, which is as bad as it sounds, but is very definitely unproven.
  • You almost certainly won’t see any spiders. They’re just not as common as you think. I don’t think any of our visitors have seen any spiders at all. We’ve been here nearly three years, and seen a few, but not many. When the weather warms up we’ve seen a few white-tails in the house – more in our old house than this one. I’ve seen a couple of redbacks in places like the garden shed but that’s largely it.

So, let’s talk about huntsmen. These are less well-known in the UK than some of Australia’s other spiders, but have a big reputation here. The reasons for this are simple – they’re big (very big up north!), they’re hairy, and they run really, really fast. It doesn’t matter how cool you are, I guarantee one of these beasties can make you jump if you’re not expecting it. The good news is they’re harmless – they can bite, but they’re very timid and almost certainly won’t unless you really provoke them.

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Huntsmen are good guys, they eat flies, other insects and pests. They love to squeeze into tiny narrow spaces and just wait – they can fold themselves up into amazingly narrow crevices. They come in all sorts of sizes and colours. Once while we were camping Ginny found a bright pink rubber spider in our tent that one of the boys had left there. She picked it up and threw it out, saying to the boys it was a nice trick, but the pink was completely unrealistic (you know what’s coming next). The boys denied having done anything, and on closer inspection the bright pink huntsman crawled off to bother someone else…

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That’s actually where we’ve generally seen huntsmen – while camping. They do come inside houses, but we’ve never seen one inside (unlike this guy!). But we’ve met them while camping down at Portland, Rosebud and the Grampians. We’ve also found a couple in our mailbox. Maybe we’d get more if we lived further north, where it’s warmer all year round.

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Despite not being dangerous themselves, huntsmen are implicated in a number of accidents and even deaths. This is because of their tendency to surprise drivers in cars, causing them to swerve and possibly crash. The classic ‘attack’ is where one is hiding behind the sun visor, you turn a corner into the sun, pull the visor down and all of a sudden a big hairy beast the size of a dinner plate is sprinting over your lap. I don’t know how much this is an urban legend, but I have to say I always open the sun visors carefully. I’ve never seen one there yet, but others have

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Here’s the biggest one we’ve met so far, up in the beautiful Grampians. That’s Felix’s thumb for scale, so it’s certainly a good size but not like the far-north monsters, such as the largest in the world from Laos.

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And to finish with here’s a pub name that would never work in Australia. Perfectly innocent name for a hostelry in Bath, but just nope in Aus. Thanks to Ginny who dared to get close enough to take this photo and even went inside!

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They’re never going to be cute and cuddly like koalas or possums, but huntsmen are alright. Just be careful with your sun visor…

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Echidnas

Some people think if you crossed a hedgehog with an anteater you’d end up with something like an echidna. But they’d be wrong. Very wrong. There’s so much more going on with echidnas that a simple idea like that is never going to get you anywhere. Yes, they have spines like a hedgehog and act like one as well, snuffling about in the undergrowth and curling up if they’re disturbed. Yes, they have a (very) long bristly tongue to catch ants and termites like an anteater. But there the similarities end. In the pantheon of strange and unusual animals I reckon they’re up there in the top ten – and not in a nasty way. They’re delightful creatures who potter about, munching termites before those white ants munch your house. There’s a lovely image of one on the 5-cent coin, which itself is quite unusual too – since the 1990 withdrawal of the 1 and 2-cent coins it has been the smallest denomination in Australia, despite things still being priced to the cent.

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We get quite a few echidnas around here, but even though they are a fair size (up to 45cm long and 6kg) and diurnal rather than nocturnal you don’t see them very often. They’re shy and hide in the undergrowth or down their burrows. I’ve seen one wander across our drive, and Ginny found one in our old garden. She went out to have a look as it tried to climb into a hole in a tree stump – and promptly had to leap for safety as it fell out and rolled towards her, spines out – she was only wearing sandals. Apparently they’re also good swimmers – I’ve seen them down by the Yarra but never actually swimming.

But you want to know what’s so strange about them, so let’s get started! First of all the big one – they’re one of only two monotremes in the world (the other being the platypus – more on them later), meaning they are egg-laying mammals. Actually monotreme means ‘single hole’, but I think I’ll leave that to you to discover more if you really need to know. Let’s just say laying eggs isn’t the half of it – they have neither teeth nor nipples for starters.  But platypus share these characteristics, so what’s so special about echidnas?

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Well I think they’re unique in being the only animal to have forwards and backwards feet. Their front feet (with big claws for digging) point forwards as you’d expect, and their back feet, also with claws, point backwards. There are multiple theories for why this is so – helping to push soil out of the way when burrowing, or helping them clean and groom between spines. I like to think it’s to confuse anyone trying to track them!

Echidnas are very strong for their size, making them powerful diggers. If they’re disturbed then they’ll dig straight down incredibly rapidly, leaving just a pincushion of spines above the surface, and grabbing onto the earth with their claws making them very hard to dislodge (not that you should try!). There have been reports of one pushing around a 13.5kg stone, well over twice their weight, and another of one pushing a refrigerator out of the way. I’ve moved fridges before and it wasn’t fun, so I think armed with this knowledge I’ll try to get some echidnas to help next time!

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Their tongues really are pretty long, getting up to 15cm. To put that in perspective, that’s about a third to a half of their body length. Perhaps it’s best not to think what that would be like if people had tongues like that. Their long snouts are flexible to help get at ants, and have a tiny, toothless mouth at the end. In addition they’re electroreceptive – very rare in land animals as air doesn’t conduct electricity well at all. This allows them to sense tiny electric currents from insects, helping them find dinner while burrowing around in leaf litter.

Echidnas have some… unusual… facets to their reproduction. I’d move to the next paragraph if you’re a bit squeamish, but if you’ve got that sense of horrid fascination read on. Male echidnas are definitely not new men. In mating season they will follow females around, nose to tail in trains of up to 10 or 11 for up to a month. As if this wasn’t hassle enough, sometimes male echidnas will wake up early from hibernation, and sneak into female echidna’s burrows while they’re still asleep, meaning poor old Ms. Echidna wakes up pregnant. However this may be a small mercy when you find out that the male echidna has a four-headed penis. Oh yes. Now I’ve said it you won’t be able to get it out of your head, so I’ll save you the bother of searching the web for pictures and point you straight here. The huge smile he appears to have doesn’t help either. Right, that’s quite enough of that, on with more savoury echidna facts!

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Quiz time! What’s a baby echidna called? A puggle – and if you think that sounds cute you should see what they look like. Even though they hatch from eggs, puggles have no spines at first – because echidnas have a pouch, and spines and pouches really do not mix (ouch!). When the puggle starts to get spines they’re turfed out of the pouch, but stay in the burrow until they’re a bit bigger. Of course being an echidna means their pouch is different too – it faces backwards. This makes sense though – if you’re a burrowing animal (like wombats as well), then a forwards-facing pouch is not a helpful thing to have!

Lastly a note on the pictures – as I said, although echidnas are common you don’t see them that often. When you do, they’re very timid and will curl up or burrow at the slightest sound. This is why I’ve only managed to get one shot (at the top) of one that isn’t curled up. As ever more patience is needed – but they’re worth it, there aren’t many more curious creatures than our echidnas.

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