The Echidna (or Spiny Ant-eater) and the Platypus share the distinction of being the only two surviving monotremes, a primitive link between the reptiles and the other more advanced mammals. Like the Platypus, the Echidna lays eggs.
Echidnas are widely distributed throughout Australia, and New Guinea. In Australia they live in a variety of habitats, from dry deserts to humid rainforests or in the Australian Alps.
There are several kinds of spiny ant-eater. A short-beaked species with strong and numerous spines is widely distributed throughout the mainland. The Tasmanian species is larger and more hairy. In Papua and New Guinea there is the long-beaked species, with dense fur, and whose beak is nearly twice as long as its head and has a downward curve.
They look like a hedgehog or porcupine but are not related. Echidnas grow up to 50cm (20") in length. Their backs and sides are covered with spines and coarse hair. They have small eyes and the ears have no outer part, being mere vertical slits. It has a long, black, tubular snout with a small mouth and long narrow, sticky tongue to gather up their food. The nostrils are at the tip of the snout. It has no teeth. The Echidna has short strong feet with sharp claws. It waddles when it walks. The male is larger than the female and has a spur on the ankle of the hind leg, however there is no functional poison gland. It is a useful means of distinguishing between the sexes.
Echidnas are solitary and restricted to a home range. They rest in hollow logs, under stones, clumps of vegetation or in short burrows. Unlike other Australian mammals, it can be seen during the daytime. Their pattern of activity appears to be influenced by the temperature, and they may be active by day or by night. In the hotter parts of the continent they tend to be nocturnal. They are rarely seen during winter.
The Echidna is not an aggressive animal.
The short-beaked Echidna eats ants and termites, the New Guinea species eats worms. The short-beaked Echidnas living in arid areas may fast for weeks when there is a shortage of insect food.
The spiny ant-eater has remarkable defensive ability when it feels threatened. It rolls itself into a ball, with prickly spines out to protect its soft under-parts, and can dig itself into sand or earth with a great rapidity. If disturbed, the Echidna's instant reaction is to burrow straight downwards. Once half buried, with the massive claws of its incredibly strong limbs hooked under roots or rocks, it is almost impossible to lift up or turn over.
Mating occurs from June to August, earlier in the north. At the beginning of the breeding season, a pouch develops, which is not much more than a fold of skin in the muscular walls of the abdomen. A single, small, leathery egg is produced and laid into the pouch. After about ten days the young emerges, breaking the shell with a temporary tooth on the muzzle. Once hatched, it feeds on milk secreted on to the hair from milk glands on either side of the abdomen. There are no teats. The tiny hairless baby remains in the pouch for 6-8 weeks, until its spines appear. It remains in the burrow for about three months. The mother continues to feed it. It does not become independent until it is about one year old.
Man is the only natural predator of these mammals, though they are increasingly falling prey to feral cats and dogs.
Echidnas in captivity have lived for up to fifty years.
Back to Australian Fauna page.