Your first glance of an echidna is unforgettable. And likely an experience that’ll leave you rubbing your eyes or doing a double take. We don’t blame you. After all, it’s difficult to wrap your head around this strange combo of so many different critters.
Echidnas look like porcupines with their quill-covered bodies. But their narrow, toothless beaks scream bird. Add to the mix egg-laying, and you might be tempted to lean toward reptiles. But then, how do you explain their kangaroo-like pouches?
No matter how you slice it, echidnas are a puzzle of crazy pieces that shouldn’t fit together. Yet somehow, they do. Keep reading for the full scoop on these one-of-a-kind animals.
Some people call echidnas spiny anteaters. They live in Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. About the size of a house cat, they weigh between five and 20 pounds and measure between 14 and 30 inches long.
Multiple species of echidnas exist. They include the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus). You’ll also find three species of long-beaked echidnas in the Zaglossus genus.
Besides the length of their snouts, short-beaked echidnas have smaller bodies and longer hair than their long-beaked relatives. And when it comes to long-beaked echidnas? One boasts naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s name (Zaglossus attenborough). (If you’re wondering, he’s the voice behind countless wildlife documentaries.)
The Perfect Insect-Devouring Critter
What’s the deal with those strange beak-like mouths? They include smooth tubes concluding in itty-bitty mouths with no teeth. They use these structures to probe the ground for termites and ants, two of their fave treats.
Electroreceptors cover their beaks. These receptors detect electrical signals produced by insect muscles. In other words, they’re nature’s perfect insect hunters! What happens when they find a feast of six-legged creatures? Their powerful claws expose them, and their sticky six-inch-long tongues do the dirty work. (The “Tachyglossus” in Tachyglossus aculeatus means “quick tongue.”) Hard pads at the back of their tongues and the roofs of their mouths grind down their creepy-crawlie meals.
As for their porcupine-like spines? Despite their appearance and the nickname “spiny anteaters,” the needle-like structures on their backs aren’t needles or spines. Instead, scientists describe them as modified hairs.
These modified hairs measure up to two inches long and cover their bodies. You’ll find them everywhere except legs, faces, and undersides. Fur between the “spiny” hairs provides echidnas with insulation. These massive hairs act as visual and physical deterrents. But they’re not as devastating as porcupine needles. When spooked, echidnas curl up like hedgehogs.
The Lowdown on Monotremes
Despite their pokey appearances, echidnas have more in common with duck-billed platypuses than porcupines. Unlike their famous billed cousins, however, echidnas aren’t venomous. But all species of both animals fall under the larger monotreme umbrella as egg-laying mammals.
Male echidnas line up for days to have a chance of mating with a female. They stand nose-to-tail in lines of up to 12, waiting for a signal from the gal in question. When she’s ready for romance, the males dig trenches around her. Next, they attempt to hurl each other into the trenches. The last echidna standing wins.
Twenty-two days after mating, a female echidna lays one leathery egg in her belly pouch. Ten days later, the egg hatches. Out comes a jellybean-sized baby, known as a puggle. The puggle stays in the pouch for the next seven weeks, enjoying milk secreted from its mother’s glands.
Eventually, mom transfers her puggle into a burrow. There, it stays hidden for seven more months. Every handful of days, mom returns with a meal for her baby. But apart from caring for offspring and the mating line, echidnas prefer solitude.
Low Temperatures and Long Lives
Like other warm-blooded animals, echidnas maintain their body temperature. But it’s the lowest in the mammal world at a chilly 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, it can fluctuate from 41 to 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit based on factors like hibernation.
The animal can also transition in and out of torpor at any time of day and any season. During periods of torpor, their bodies feel cool to the touch, non-responsive, and exhibit lowered respiration and heart rates. Put another way, they’re experts at playing dead.
While their temperatures may vary widely, that doesn’t mean they get the short end of the stick regarding life span. Anecdotal evidence points to 45-year-long life spans in the wild. And domestic echidnas have lived for upwards of 50 years! As it turns out, slow metabolism and low body temperature make for longer lives.
Although echidnas fall back on incredible longevity, they face many natural predators. These include foxes, goannas (monitor lizards), feral cats, domestic dogs, dingoes, and even eagles. Echidna burrows also prove vulnerable to snakes, especially since babies don’t have fully formed spines for protection. Some species are critically endangered, which makes conservation vital. There’s no other creature like them on the planet, and conservationists are working hard to ensure that never changes!
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com