| The echidna is a small, spiny, barrel shaped
animal that resembles a pale brown porcupine. It is one of only two types
of mammal that reproduce by laying eggs. The common echidna is also known
as the “spiny anteater.” It is found mainly in sheltered grassy and woodland
areas that have soft enough soil for the animal to dig for prey or burrow
into the ground.
Habits: The solitary echidna occupies a territory that varies in size, depending on the abundance of food in the area. In moist forest regions, where food is plentiful, an echidna may wander over an area as large as 125 acres. The echidna does not use any one shelter regularly. Instead, it rests in hollow logs, under thick vegetation, or among piles of rocks. During cool weather conditions, the echidna is active at dawn and dusk. During hot summer weather it emerges only at night; in cold weather, it spends the entire day outside. Although the echidna does not hibernate, it remains inactive when the weather is very wet.
The echidnas only enemies are man and the dingo (Australian wild dog). If either disturbs the echidna, it burrows vertically into the ground. It pushes the soil away from underneath itself with all four feet at once. The echidna stops digging only when more than half of its body is buried. An echidna burrows to escape predators. The echidnas spines make it difficult for a predator to pry the echidna loose without injuring itself.
Food and Hunting: The echidna is a carnivore, or meat eater. But it has no jaw muscles, so it cannot open its jaws. Instead, it draws food into the tiny circular opening at the end of its snout with its long tongue. The tongue can extend as much as seven inches from the tip of the snout. Since the echidna has no teeth, it grinds prey between the ridges at the base of its tongue and palate.
The echidna locates its prey chiefly by smell. It turns over the soil with its paws to search for ants, termites, and any other insects small enough to be eaten. The echidna is so strong that it can turn over stones more than twice its own weight. In August and September the echidna digs for female meat ants. These female ants are especially fat at this time of year (spring in the southern hemisphere), and the echidna is willing to risk the meat ants’ painful sting. When the echidna is in an inactive state (called torpor), it is able to go without food for as long as a month. Using the claws on all four feet, an echidna burrows into a termite mound to feed on the insects.
Breeding: The female echidna leaves a scent trail on the ground when she is ready to mate. While foraging for food, the male detects and follows her scent. Sometimes a single female is followed by four or five males at once. Two weeks after mating the female lies on her back and lays a single egg. She stretches her body so that the egg drops into the pouch on her abdomen. After 7 to 10 days the tiny young breaks out of the leathery shell, using the specialized egg tooth on the tip of its snout. The hatchling is only half an inch long. It stays in its mothers pouch, feeding on her milk for eight weeks. At eight weeks of age the young echidna is four inches long, and it spines have begun to develop. The mother digs it a separate burrow that she visits daily for six months to suckle the young.
Key Facts: Sizes:
Related Species: Long nosed or long beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijni, found in New Guinea.
Distribution: Found widely throughout the less barren parts of Australia.
Conservation: Because echidnas have no economic value and are not considered to be pests, they are not hunted extensively by man. Because they have few natural enemies, they are common and widespread.
Features of the Common Echidna: All four feet have powerful claws for digging. The second toe of each hind foot has a special long, curved claw used for scratching between the spines. The echidna digs in the earth, pulling food into its mouth with its sticky tongue. Mouth and nostrils are at the tip of a hairless snout. Spines grow through dense fur coat, covering back and sides.
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