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What In The World Is An Echidna?

This spiky monotreme can be found in Australia and New Guinea

A young echidna in Coles Bay, Australia (courtesy of flickr user ausemade)

Readers of our Evotourism story about Kangaroo Island in Australia may have been puzzled by the mention of an animal called the echidna. What is it?

In Greek mythology, Echidna was half snake and half woman, and she was the mother of all monsters. The animal echidna, with its stocky body covered in defensive spines, doesn’t look much like a monster, but as a type of mammal called a monotreme, it does share features with both snakes and humans. Like reptiles, echidnas lay eggs–just one a year–but they keep that egg and the resulting baby, called a puggle, in a pouch, like many marsupials do. And like all mammals, that baby will lap up milk until it grows old enough to eat solid food.

Also known as “spiny anteaters,” echidnas come in two varieties. The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) lives throughout Australia and New Guinea and is well adapted to a wide range of habitats, including deserts and rain forests. Its long-beaked cousin (Zaglossus bruijni), however, is found only in the tropical rain forests of New Guinea. These rare animals are officially endangered, their numbers brought low because of land clearing and hunting made easier with dogs and guns–the people of New Guinea consider the echidna, roasted over the coals of a fire, a delicacy.

The first western person to encounter an echidna and write about it was William Bligh, infamous captain of the Bounty. In 1792, his ship stopped in Tasmania on its way to Tahiti. On February 7 he wrote:

An animal shot at Adventure Bay. It had a Beak like a Duck – a thick brown coat of Hair, through which the points of numerous Quills of an Inch long projected these very sharp – It was 14 inches long & walked about on 2 legs. Has very small Eyes & five claws on each foot – Its mouth has a small opening at the end of the Bill & had a very small tongue.

The ship’s officer, George Tobin, who shot the poor animal reported: “The animal was roasted and found of a delicate flavour.”

Echidnas are as weird as Bligh reported all those years ago. The animal uses its snout, or “beak,” to unearth termites, ants and worms that it laps up with its long tongue. An echidnas has no teeth, though, so it has to use its tongue to grind its food against the roof of its mouth, turning it into a paste it can swallow.

An echidna isn’t good at running. It has short legs that, in the rear, point backwards to help it dig. An extra-long claw on one toe allows them to clean between their spines. If an echidna encounters a predator or enemy, it won’t run away or fight. Instead, it will curl into a ball, sharp spines pointing out, sometimes wedging itself into a space beneath a rock or burrowing into the soil to escape predators such as dogs and eagles.

The echidna isn’t the world’s only monotreme. Do you know the other?

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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