Quick facts for kidsShort-beaked echidna
The short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus, is the spiny anteater because they eat ants and termites. It is covered in fur and spines. It has a special nose (snout) and a special tongue that lets the echidna catch its prey at a great speed. It lays eggs, like the other monotremes.
The echidna lives throughout Australia, and in coastal and highland regions of southwestern New Guinea. In Australia, it is the most widespread native mammal. It is not threatened with extinction, but human activities, such as hunting, habitat destruction, and the introduction of foreign predators and parasites, have reduced its range.
The animal was first described in 1792. Tachyglossus means "fast tongue". This is about the speed with which the echidna uses its tongue to catch ants and termites. The word aculeatus means "spiny" or "having spines".
The long-beaked echidna are all bigger than T. aculeatus. They eat mostly worms and grubs, rather than ants and termites.
There are five subspecies of the short-beaked echidna. Each live in a different area from the others. The subspecies are also different from each other as to hairiness, spine length and width, and the size of the claws on their back feet.
- T. a. multiaculeatus on Kangaroo Island;
- T. a. setosus on Tasmania and some islands in Bass Strait;
- T. a. acanthion in Northern Territory and Western Australia;
- T. a. aculeatus in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria;
- T. a. lawesii in coastal regions and the highlands of New Guinea, and possibly in the rainforests of Northeast Queensland.
Short-beaked echidnas are usually 30 to 45 centimetres in length. They have a 75-millimetre beak, and weigh between two and five kilograms. The Tasmanian subspecies, T. a. setosus, is larger than the Australian mainland species.
Because the neck cannot be seen, the head and body appear to join together. The earholes are on either side of the head, with no external pinnae. The eyes are small and at the base of the wedge-shaped beak. The nostrils and the mouth are at the far end of the beak.
The legs of this echidna are adapted for rapid digging. Their legs are short and have strong claws. The claws on the back feet are longer and curve backwards to help cleaning and grooming between the spines. Like the platypus it has a low body temperature — between 30 and 32 °C. Unlike the platypus, which shows no evidence of torpor or hibernation, the body temperature of the echidna may fall as low as 5 °C. The echidna does not pant or sweat and normally seeks shelter in hot conditions. In autumn and winter the echidna shows periods of torpor or deep hibernation. Because of its low body temperature, the animal becomes sluggish in very hot and very cold weather.
The muscles of this echidna have a number of unusual features. There is an enormous muscle that is just beneath the skin and covers the entire body. By contraction of various parts of this muscle the Short-beaked Echidna can change shape. The most common shape change is achieved by rolling itself into a ball when threatened, protecting its belly and presenting a defensive array of sharp spines. It has one of the shortest spinal cords of any mammal, extending only as far as the thorax.
The tongue of the short-beaked echidna is the animal's only way of catching prey. It can stick out up to 180 mm outside the snout. The tongue is sticky because of the presence of glycoprotein-rich mucous. This mucus both lubricates movement in and out of the snout and helps to catch ants and termites, which stick to it. The protruded tongue is stiffened by the rapid flow of blood, allowing it to penetrate wood and soil. Retraction requires the contraction of two internal muscles. When the tongue is retracted, the prey is caught on backward-facing keratinous "teeth" along the roof of the buccal cavity. This allows the animal to both capture and grind food. The tongue moves with great speed, and has been measured to move in and out of the snout 100 times a minute.
Many physiological adaptations fit the animal to its lifestyle. It burrows, and can tolerate high levels of carbon dioxide. Its ear is sensitive to low-frequency sound, which may be ideal for detecting sounds emitted by termites and ants underground. The leathery snout is covered in mechano- and thermoreceptors. These receptors provide information about the surrounding environment. The echidna has a well-developed olfactory system, which may be used to detect mates and prey, and its other senses perform well. Its brain and central nervous system have been extensively studied for comparison with placental mammals.
The short-beaked echidna has the largest prefrontal cortex, relative to body size, of any mammal. It takes up 50% of the volume of the cortex, compared to 29% for humans. This suggests good decision-making in its constant search for insect nests, and for a mate when reproducing.
Like all monotremes, the echidna has only one orifice for the passage of faeces, urine and reproductive products, which is known as the cloaca. The male has internal testes, no external scrotum and a highly unusual penis with four knobs on the tip. The gestating female has a pouch on its underside, where it raises its young.
The solitary Short-beaked Echidna looks for a mate between May and September; the precise timing of the mating season varies with geographic location. Both males and females give off a strong odour during the mating season. During courtship — observed for the first time in 1989 — males locate and pursue females. Trains of up to ten males may follow a single female in a courtship ritual that may last for up to four weeks; the duration of the courtship period varies with location.
Hatchlings are about 1.5 cm long and weigh between 0.3 and 0.4 grams. After hatching, young Echidnas are known as puggles. Hatchlings attach themselves to their mothers' milk areolae, a specialised patch on the skin that secretes milk (monotremes have no nipples). The way in which puggles drink the milk is not yet known, but they have been observed drinking large amounts during each feeding period, since mothers may leave them unattended in the burrow for between five and ten days. The principal components of the milk are types of lactose. The milk has a high iron content, which gives it a pink colour.
Juveniles are eventually ejected from the pouch at around two to three months of age, because of the continuing growth in the length of their spines. Suckling gradually decreases until juveniles are weaned at about six months of age. The duration of lactation is about 200 days, and the young leave the burrow between 180 and 240 days.
The Short-beaked Echidna can live as long as 45 years in the wild.
Ecology and behaviour
No systematic study of the ecology of the Short-beak Echidna has been published. There have been studies of several aspects of their ecological behaviour. Short-beaked Echidnas live alone and apart from the burrow created for rearing young; they have no fixed shelter or nest site. They do not have a home territory, but range over a wide area. Short-beaked Echidnas are usually active in the daytime; however, they have problems in hot weather, because they have no sweat glands and do not pant. Therefore, in warm weather they change their pattern of activity, becoming crepuscular (active at dawn or dusk) or nocturnal (active in the night). They can tolerate cold temperatures, and hibernate during the winter in very cold regions.
Short-beaked Echidnas can live anywhere where there is a good supply of food. Short-beaked Echidnas find food by smell, using sensors in the tip of their beak, and regularly feast on ants and termites. They are powerful diggers, using their clawed front paws to dig out prey and dig burrows for shelter. They may rapidly dig themselves into the ground if they cannot find cover when in danger.
In Australia they are most common in forested areas where there are many termite-filled fallen logs. In agricultural areas, they are most likely to be in uncleared scrub; they may be in grassland, arid areas, and in the outer suburbs of the capital cities. Little is known about their distribution in New Guinea. They have been found in southern New Guinea between Merauke in the west, to the Kelp Welsh River, east of Port Moresby, where they may be in open woodland.
The Short-beaked Echidna is common in most of temperate Australia and lowland New Guinea, and is not listed as endangered. In Australia, the number of Short-beaked Echidnas has been less affected by land clearing than have some other species, since Short-beaked Echidnas do not require a specialised habitat beyond a good supply of ants and termites. Despite their spines, they are eaten by birds, the Tasmanian Devil, cats, foxes and dogs. They were also eaten by indigenous Australians and the early Europen settlers of Australia. The most common threats to the animal in Australia are cars and habitat destruction. These have led to localised extinction. Infection with the introduced parasite Spirometra erinaceieuropaei is fatal for the Echidna. The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland runs an Australia-wide survey called Echidna Watch to monitor the species in Australia.
Captive breeding is difficult, partly because of the relatively infrequent breeding cycle. Only five zoos have managed to breed a captive Short-beaked Echidna, but no captive-bred young have survived to be adults. This has conservation implications for the endangered species of echidna from the genus Zaglossus, and to a lesser extent for the Short-beaked Echidna.
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