The short-beaked echidna is
Australia’s most widespread animal
Photo © WPSQ
Also known as spiny anteater, nyingarn (Beeloo, WA), tjilkamata (Pitjantjatjara, Central Australia), minha kekoywa (Pakanh, Cape York Peninsula)
Tachyglossus means ‘quick tongue’, referring to the speed with which the echidna uses its tongue to catch ants and termites. Aculeatus means ‘spiny’.
The species was first described in writing on 9 February 1792 in Captain Bligh’s log on HMS Bounty. In the same year, naturalist George Shaw first gave the echidna a scientific name.
There are five subspecies of short-beaked echidna in Australia, each with its own distribution.
- Long spines, with fur in between, that cover the echidna’s back and tail
- Short powerful limbs with 5 toes and strong shovel-like claws
- Long tubular snout with a tongue that can extend up to 17cm long
- Adult males have a non-venomous spur on the ankle of each hind leg.
- Males weigh about 6 kg; females 4.5.kg.
- Body length 30–45cm
- Ant nests and termite mounds broken apart
- Half-moon-shaped hollows at the base of plants where echidnas have been searching for grubs
- Partially broken, smooth, cylindrical droppings containing insect cases mixed with soil or sand.
- Inhabit a wide range of terrestrial habitats wherever there are enough ants or termites: including desert, rainforest, open forest, bushland, farmland, suburban backyards.
- Echidnas can tolerate snow.
- Echidnas avoid extremes in temperature by sheltering in hollow logs, rock crevices and vegetation.
- Except for nursery burrows, they have no fixed nest or shelter sites.
- Echidnas can live 16 years in the wild, but usually less than 10 years. One captive echidna lived for 49 years.
- Breeding season is in the spring and lasts 2–3 months
- A single egg is deposited in the female’s pouch, where it is loosely held and incubated for around10 days.
- Echidnas carry their young (known as puggles) in the pouch for about 55 days, or until spines develop, and suckle them until about 7 months of age.
- The females do not have teats or nipples, so the baby sucks directly from the milk patch (hairs over openings of milk glands) in the pouch.
- When the spines start to develop, the mother leaves the puggle in a nursery burrow, returning every 5-10 days to feed it.
- Juveniles finally leave the nursery burrow at 6–8 months.
- Eat ants and termites using a long sticky tongue that also masticates food.
- Echidnas are also known to eat earthworms, beetles and moth larvae.
- They occasionally drink from open water or may even lick dew from leaves.
- Solitary except in breeding season when they form echidna trains – males follow a female in single file, nose to tail. Individuals in the train may vary from day to day. (Echidnas in the Snowy Mountains don’t do this behaviour.).
- Most active at twilight and in early morning.
- Activity levels are affected by temperature. In colder weather in the eastern states and Tasmania, they can become active during the day.
- Vunerable to heat stress so seek refuge during the day.
- Echidnas burrow quickly or curl up in ball when under threat.
- Echidnas choose refuges that offer good camouflage and where they can remain perfectly still without being detected.
- Large overlapping home ranges of 45–50ha.
Echidna Distribution in Australia
- Echidnas are found throughout Australia. It is the country’s most widespread native animal.
- 5 subspecies of short-beaked echidna are found in different regions of Australia:
- T. a. multiaculeatus: Kangaroo Island
- T. a. setosus: Tasmania and some Bass Strait islands
- T. a. acanthion: Northern Territory and Western Australia
- T. a. aculeatus: most of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria
- T. a. lawesii: coastal regions and the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and possibly in the rainforests of north-east Queensland.
In order of severity:
- cats and dingos, and
- Federal: Although no population estimate exists, the echidna is not listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act.
- State: not listed. Status is Least Concern
- EchidnaWatch. Wildlife Queensland project. Communities and individuals can join a monitoring survey to report echidna sightings across Queensland in order to estimate and map populations.
- Rismiller. P, (2000) ‘Echidna – spiny individual’, Wildlife Australia magazine pp 16–18
- Rismiller. P. (1999) The Echidna – Australia's enigma, Levin Associates. Hong Kong
- Augee. M.L. (ed) (1992) Platypus and Echidnas, Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales. Sydney
- Augee, M, Gooden, B, and Musser, M (2006) Echidna Extraordinary egg-laying mammal, CSIRO Publishing