The echidna is a small animal covered in fur and spines and has a unique snout. A lot more people know a reference to the echidna then they realize…Remember the Knuckles, the red spikey guy from Sonic the Hedgehog? As a kid growing up I didn’t realize that Knuckles is actually an echidna until a friend told me. There are four different types of echidnas in the world; Short-Beaked, Western Long-Beaked, Sir David's Long-Beaked (named after Sir David Attenborough…remember him from the Titan Amur post?) and the Eastern Long-Beaked Echidna. The Echidna is part of the mammal group called monotremes which have a very unique attribute amongst mammals, which I will explain later in this post.
When you first see an echidna you might think that it is either a hedgehog or a small porcupine until you see its face and notice the beak like snout. The average Short-Beaked Echidna is about 45cm (18in) long, has a 75mm (3in) snout and weighs around 2 to 5 kilogram (4.4lb to 11lb). They appear to have no neck but it is actually very short, almost as if the head and body is merged together, earholes on each side of the head but no earlobes (or pinnae), small beady eyes, the nose and mouth are on the end of its snout. The mouth cannot open wider than 5mm (0.2in), which is just fine because they use their long sticky tongue to grab ants and termites to eat. The tongue can reach up to 180mm (7in) – almost half the length of the body!
The echidna is covered on their back with fur and cream coloured spines that are up 50mm (2in) long, mostly made of Keratin (compressed hair). The spines are not hook shaped or shaped in any way that make them stick into you. They do not shed the spines, but they have been known to fall off when ill or too stressed. The echidna has a defensive posture where they roll themselves into a ball; this protects their underside and head from danger while leaving spines sticking out in all directions.
The echidna has long curved claws on their hind feet, this is helpful to groom between the spines on their back. The echidnas are very prolific diggers and can dig very fast with their powerful front legs. It was once reported by a scientist that an echidna was moving a fridge around in the lab with strength similar to the Hercules beetle. Echidna’s corneas are harder than most mammals and this is to protect again chemicals secreted by insects. Echidnas can live in areas that have high carbon dioxide levels, they slow down their heart rate to conserve oxygen, and this helps them to survive forest fires and living deep in the ground. To further ensure survival, echidnas are good swimmers so a flood does not bother them much. Echidnas have a keen sense of smell, and can sense electricity with their snouts; they also have sensitive optic nerves that has been shown to have visual discrimination and special memory like a rat. The echidna has the largest prefrontal cortex relative to its body size, taking up to 50% of the brain when humans are only 29%, this is part of the brain that controls reasoning and strategy so they have good problem solving skills, like getting through mazes and opening trap doors to get to food. All in all they are quite adapted to survive just about everything, which is good because they do not have a large population.
The echidna is a shy solitary animal expect for mating and raising young. Multiple males will court one female and if she rejects them she will curl into a ball, seems to be their answer to everything they don't like. The male has a two-headed penis with two tips on each side; this increases the likelihood of pregnancy. Once pregnant the female gestation period is 21 to 28 days, which she makes a nursery burrow to rest and raise the puggle (baby) in. After gestation she produces a single rubbery egg around 15mm (0.5in) long into a small pouch under her abdomen. The puggle grows a tooth in the egg that is designed just for cracking the egg and looses it not long after its birth. The egg hatches in about ten days and then since the mother does not have nipples the puggle drinks milk from about 100 to 150 pores on her abdomen. The echidna has been recorded to live as long as 49 years in a zoo and we are not sure how long in the wild. Echidna only live in Australia and New Guinea and is an introduced species to New Zealand; they are not endangered but there are not a lot of them so they can easily become endangered.
If you have not noticed what the very unique attribute is that is ok because they have so many of them. The very unique attribute is that the monotremes are the only mammal to lay eggs, there are only two living mammals that do this and they are the echidna and the duck-billed platypus.
With the spines, claws, unique snout, strength, intelligence, egg laying and many adaptations there are more than enough reasons to call the short-beaked echidna (or any echidna) EPIC!