Short-beaked Echidna (tachyglossus Aculeatus): Species Account
Physical characteristics: The short-beaked echidna is a compact, heavily muscled, short-legged creature covered with fur and an array of sharp spines. From a distance, it looks and moves something like a porcupine. Up close, it looks less like a porcupine and more like a waddling shrub of grass-like leaves and sharp thorns with a long, probing twig (the snout) at the forward end.
Adult short-beaked echidnas range in head and body length from 14 to 21 inches (35 to 53 centimeters), the stubby tail adding another 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters). Males weigh about 14 pounds (6 kilograms), while females weigh about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).
The pelt (fur) varies in color and thickness throughout the species' range, being darker and thicker as one moves south. In northern Australia, echidna pelts are light brown, while in Tasmania they are black.
Geographic range: Australia, Tasmania, and the lowlands of New Guinea.
Habitat: The short-beaked echidna can live in nearly any habitat where it can count on a steady food supply of ants and termites. This adaptability has allowed the species to occupy nearly all habitat types in Australia and New Guinea, from tropical rainforest and grassland to desert.
Diet: Short-beaked echidnas are ground foragers that feed by wandering across fields and forest floors, sniffing and lightly poking at the soil with their hard snouts, then gouging out dirt with their powerful legs and claws from an area where the animal has detected ants, termites, worms, or other soil-living creatures. Or, an echidna may tear open a rotten log to get at ants, or a termite mound for termites. Once an echidna has exposed the insects or worms, it shoots out its long, ropy, sticky tongue, laps up the insects, then reels in the tongue, loaded along its length with up to twenty insects at a time.
Behavior and reproduction: Short-beaked echidnas have one annual breeding season, July through August. Courtship behavior in echidnas is a sight not soon forgotten, since several males will follow single file in an "echidna train" behind a female for one to six weeks. Sooner or later, the female halts and the males encircle her continuously, gouging out a circle of dirt around her. The female at last selects one male from the gang and mates with him, after which the two part and go separate ways. Fathers do not help with raising the young.
About twenty-four days after mating, the female lays her egg. When the mother senses that the egg is ready to emerge, she lays on her back and guides it as it slowly rolls down and over her underbelly and into the pouch, which closes to hold and shelter the egg.
A newly hatched echidna is the size of a jellybean. The mother carries the hatchling in her pouch for fifty to fifty-five days. She then removes the youngster and hides it in a burrow or cave, returning every five days to nurse the infant. The youngster is able to move about and forage but continues to nurse until it is six months old, and becomes independent at one year of age.
To protect itself, a short-beaked echidna may wedge itself into small spaces in burrows, rocks, or tree roots, where it can secure itself by using its claws and spines to wedge its body within the space. If caught in the open, the echidna can roll itself into a ball, head and legs tucked underneath and the protective spines pointing outward. It can also burrow and bury itself in the soil within a minute, leaving only its topmost spines visible as a final defense.
Short-beaked echidnas and people: Most people in Australia are either fond of echidnas or indifferent toward them. They are not considered pest animals.
Conservation status: Short-beaked echidnas are protected by law in Australia, and are plentiful there, since they can adapt to a wide range of habitats. Despite their high population, their numbers are declining. Research on short-beaked echidnas is ongoing at Pelican Lagoon Research Center on Kangaroo Island, Australia. ∎
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kennedy, Michael, compiler. Australasian Marsupials and Monotremes: An Action Plan for Their Conservation. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, Species Survival Commission, Australasian Marsupial and Monotreme Specialist Group, 1992.
Rismiller, Peggy. The Echidna: Australia's Enigma. Westport, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1999.
Stodart, Eleanor. The Australian Echidna. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.
Griffiths, M., B. Green, R. M. C. Leckie, M. Messer, and K.W. Newgrain. "Constituents of Platypus and Echidna Milk." Australian Journal of Biological Science no. 37 (1984): 323–329.
Vergnani, Linda. "On the Trail of Scientific Oddballs. (Peggy Rismiller studies echidnas)." The Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 11 (Nov 9, 2001): A72(1).
Echidna Central. http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/echidnas (accessed on June 29, 2004)
Pelican Lagoon Research Centre, Australia. http://www.echidna.edu.au/ (accessed on June 29, 2004).
Animal Life ResourceMammalsEchidnas: Tachyglossidae - Physical Characteristics, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Echidnas And People, Short-beaked Echidna (tachyglossus Aculeatus): Species Account - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, CONSERVATION STATUS