“It’s a porcupine!” “It’s a hedgehog!” “It's an echidna?” Zoos with echidnas hear these comments all the time. The echidna (ih-KID-na), or spiny anteater, is an unusual mammal. It is so different from any other that it still puzzles researchers and scientists. It has remained unchanged since prehistoric times but has found ways to survive while other species became extinct. But what really sets the echidna apart from other mammals? Female echidnas lay eggs! The only other egg-laying mammal is the duck-billed platypus, another animal native to Australia.
The natural environment of the echidna is rough scrubland. An echidna is a solitary creature and minds its own business. It may be active during the day, evening, or both, depending on the season and food sources. The short-beaked echidna Tachyglossus aculeatus has dark fur that is almost completely hidden by a covering of hollow, barbless quills, called spines, on its back and sides. The long-beaked echidna Zaglossus bruijini has little fur and much more visible spines. The beige-and-black spines on both species help camouflage the echidna in the brush. An echidna has a tiny face with small eyes and a long nose, sometimes called a beak.
An echidna’s typical day begins by finding something to eat. Like anteaters, the echidna has no teeth. So how does it eat? The echidna has a long, sticky tongue to catch and chew its food: ants, termites, or earthworms. The nostrils at the tip of the beak help the echidna sniff out its next meal. Then the 6-inch (15-centimeter) tongue laps up the bugs or worms while hard pads at the base of the tongue and on the roof of the mouth grind the food into a paste for swallowing. The echidna at the San Diego Zoo is fed a “milkshake” made of ground-up leaf eater biscuits and dog kibble, with water added to form a thick paste to lick up.
The echidna’s short legs aren’t made for running but for digging. The hind legs point backwards, with an extra-long claw on the second toe that can be used to “comb” or scratch out dirt and bugs that get in between the echidna’s spines. Its powerful front feet can dig straight down into the earth until only the spines of its back can be seen. The claws on its front legs are also useful for tearing open termite mounds. This digging ability comes in handy if the echidna needs to escape from danger. Some say an echidna can dig a hole just as fast as a human can using a shovel! Another way the echidna can protect itself is to curl up into a tight, spiky ball, hiding its face and feet. Surprisingly, echidnas are also excellent swimmers.
Hatching a mammal
An adult female echidna usually lays a single egg once a year. The leathery egg is about the size of a grape. The female rolls the newly laid egg into a deep pocket, or pouch, on her belly to keep it safe. Ten days later the baby echidna, called a puggle, hatches. It is smaller than a jelly bean! The puggle uses its tiny, see-through claws to grip the special hairs within the mother’s pouch. The mother does not have nipples the way other mammals do. Instead, the little puggle laps up milk that the mother’s body secretes from special glands in her pouch.
Fortunately for the mother, the puggle is not born with its spines sticking out! It remains in the pouch until its spines begin to break through, at about 53 days. Then the mother puts the puggle into a burrow, where she will return to feed it every 5 to 10 days until it is big enough to go out on its own, at about 7 months old.
The long-beaked echidna, found only in New Guinea, is hunted for food by people using trained dogs. A loss of forest habitat to farming activity has also had an effect on the echidna’s population, making this unique animal currently endangered. It is estimated that there are less than 300,000 long-beaked echidnas left in the world.
More to learn
The echidna is one of the Earth’s oldest surviving species. Yet there are many questions scientists still have about this elusive animal. What is its life span in the wild? When is an echidna old enough to start a family? What is the mother/puggle relationship like? What are its daily habits? It’s fun to realize that there is still so much to learn about animals. The echidna has many surprises yet to reveal!