The echidna is an egg laying mammal or monotreme. There are only 3 species of monotreme in the world – the short-beaked echidna and the platypus, which live in Australia and the long-beaked echidna, which is found in New Guinea.
The echidna is an ancient species whose ancestors lived with the dinosaurs. Europeans first studied the echidna in 1792, but it is a solitary, shy, secretive animal and remains quite mysterious in many ways.
Echidnas weigh from 2 to 7 kg and are 30 to 45 cm in length. They have long spines, a rudimentary tail, short powerful limbs, spatulate claws, a long tubular snout and long sticky tongue. The average lifespan is not known but they can reach the age of 50. They are much more intelligent than is generally believed and are inquisitive and adaptable. Echidnas can use their spikes to climb and use their beak as a snorkel when swimming. When threatened or distressed they curl into a ball and present their spines.
Echidna’s diet consists of ants, termites, insects, invertebrates and larvae. They use their powerful limbs to dig into termite and ant mounds in search of food.
This species live in a wide range of habitats across Australia – desert, rainforest, bush and snow, yet they are sensitive to extreme heat and cold, and avoid extremes of temperature by hibernating or sheltering in bushes, logs and rock crevices. A body temperature above 35 C is lethal.
They are nomadic and roam over large territories (40 to 70 + hectares), they have a good hearing and sense of orientation. There is documentary evidence of one echidna travelling 35 km to return to its home range, quite a feat for a small animal with a slow rolling gait.
Apart from breeding and raising young, echidnas are solitary. They breed about every 3 to 5 years.
After mating the female echidna digs a burrow and lays one egg, which she incubates. The egg hatches in the pouch after about 10 days, and the baby (or puggle) sucks up milk from the mother’s milk patch. The puggle is carried in its mother’s pouch until it grows spines; the mother then digs a nursery burrow and leaves the puggle hidden while she forages for food. The juveniles tend to be first seen when they are about 1 year old.
Although echidnas are often described as common, we do not know how many there are and how they are coping with environmental pressures. Habitat loss, urbanisation, pollution, herbicides, pesticides, cars, dogs, electric fences and fire ants are among the threats to this species. In response to concerns about the species, the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland has set up the Echidna Watch programme to gather information about the distribution of echidnas.
If you find a sick or injured echidna, keep the animal cool, do NOT provide warmth, high temperature will kill it. Provide water but do not feed it. Echidnas require specialised treatment so contact a vet or wildlife rescue association as soon as possible. Never try to keep or confine them, they can never become pets, they have a specialised diet, love to roam and hate confinement.
If you have seen an echidna you can make a valuable contribution to our knowledge of this amazing animal by participating in Echidna Watch. Go to the WPSQ website (www.wildlife.org.au) or contact Tamborine Mountain Natural History Association by emailing nadia.