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.
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?
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!
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!
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.