Monday, April 29, 2013

E is for ECHIDNA

Echidnas (pron. 'ikidna'), sometimes known as spiny anteaters, belong to the family Tachyglossidae in the monotreme order of egg-laying mammals.  The four extant species, together with the platypus, are the only surviving members of that order and are the only extant mammals that lay eggs.  Although their diet consists largely of ants and termites, they are no more closely related to the true anteaters of the Americas than to any other placental mammal.  They live in AUSTRALIA and NEW GUINEA.  The echidna is named after a monster in ancient Greek mythology.

Echidnas are small solitary mammals, covered with coarse hair and spines (see above picture).  Superficially, they resemble the anteaters of South America and other spiny mammals such as hedgehogs and porcupines.  They have elongated and slender snouts which function as both mouth and nose.  Like the platypus, they are equipped with electrosensors, but while the platypus has 40,000 electroreceptors on its bill, the long-billed echidna has only 2,000, and the short-billled echidna, which lives in a drier environment has no more than 400 located at the tip of the snout.

The western long-beaked echidna is pictured above.

They have very short, strong limbs with large claws, and are powerful diggers.  Echidnas have tiny mouths and toothless jaws.  The echidna feeds by tearing open soft logs, anthills and the like, and using its long, sticky tongue, which protrudes from its snout, to collect prey.  The short-beaked echidna's diet consists largely of ants and termites, while the Zaglossus species typically eats worms and insect larvae.
Long-beaked echidnas have sharp, tiny spines on their tongues that help capture their prey.

Echidnas and the platypus are the only egg-laying mammals, known as monotremes.  The female lays a single soft-shelled, leathery egg 22 days after mating and deposits it directly into her pouch.  Hatching takes place after 10 days; the young echidna then sucks milk from the pores of the two milk patches (monotremes have no nipples) and remains in the pouch for 45 to 55 days, at which time it develops spines.  The mother digs a nursery burrow and deposits the young, returning every five days to suckle it until it is weaned at seven months.

Three cute little babies complete with spines.  I really love this picture.

Neocortex makes up half the echidna's brain, compared to one-third of a human brain.  Due to their low metabolism and accompanying stress resistance, echidnas are long-lived for their size; the longest recorded lifespan for a captive echidna is 50 years, with anecdotal accounts of wild individuals reaching 45 years.  Contrary to previous research, the echidna does enter REM sleep, but only when the ambient temperature is around 25C (77F).  At temperatures of 21C (59F) and 28C (82F), REM sleep is suppressed.

Molecular clock and fossil dating suggest echidnas split from platypuses 112.5 million years ago.  Echidnas evolved from a water-foraging ancestor which returned to living completely on the land, even though this put them in competition with marsupials.  Consequently, oviparous reproduction in monotremes is suggested to confer advantages over marsupials, a view consistent with present ecological partitioning between monotremes and marsupials.

If you'd like to learn about their reproductive habits I'd suggest you look it up as it is rather a complicated procedure.


  1. That's such a cute little picture of the babies.
    This series is very informative, i know more about our Aussie animals now than I ever did.

    1. I have a picture of those three babies up on my wall here.
      I am so glad you are enjoying this series River. I am enjoying finding out more and more about our indigenous animals as well.

  2. Those little guys are so cute.

  3. They are charming little critters. We were lucky enough when visiting friends to come across a family group - two adults and three babies. We spent a long time watching them - something I don't think I will ever forget. No camera of course.

  4. How fortunate for you to actually see a family of them but it must have been so frustrating not to have a camera at the ready. It would probably be a once in a lifetime experience and certainly one you'd never forget.

  5. You'd have to be a very hard type of person not to fall in love with those babies. : )