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What is an Echidna?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 July 2014
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The echidna is the only known egg laying mammal aside from the platypus, to which it is somewhat related. They are both from the order Monotremata, though they are very different in type and behavior. There are four species of echidna, all residing in Australia and New Guinea. Three reside exclusive in New Guinea and belong to the Zaglossus genera. These are the Western Long-Beaked, the Sir David’s Long-Beaked and the Eastern Long-Beaked. The fourth species belongs to the tachyglossus genus and is the Short-Beaked Echidna, which resides throughout Australia and on New Guinea.

All species of echidna look like a cross between a hedgehog and an anteater, and are often referred to as spiny anteaters. The Short-Beaked is the smallest of the four species, but adapts well to a number of different environments. It can be found on snowy mountains, or through the arid regions of the Outback.

Size varies between individuals and species, yet a male echidna will have an average weight of approximately 13 pounds (5.89 kg), and the female will weigh about 10 pounds (4.53 kg). In length, the echidna is between 1 to 1.5 feet (30.48-45.72cm). Life span is exceptionally long, and may be as long as 50 years in captivity, or about 40 years in the wild.

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The echidna is very unusual in its child-rearing techniques. The mother has a pouch, in which she will keep her newly laid egg. She will then keep the hatchling in the pouch until it begins to develop sharp spiny hair. The echidna does not have teats, but rather excretes milk from its mammary glands, that the newborn will simply lick off the mother’s belly. The baby echidna, called a puggle, will continue this unusual nursing until it is about a year old.

The mature echidna lives on a diet of small bugs, primarily ants, termites and worms. It is an exceptional digger with strong forepaws. Yet it is the frequent prey of dingoes and large eagles. Its only defense is to curl up into a ball or try to go underground, since it does not have any teeth with which to defend itself.

The echidna has a pronounced sense of smell and usually a wide territorial range. Echidnas tend to make their homes in logs and under thick bushes. They also tend to be solitary in nature, but use their noses to find mates during the mating season, which usually begins in July and ends in August.

Scientists are particularly excited about the Sir David’s Long-Beaked echidna, as it was thought to have become extinct some years past. However there have been new viewings of the animal. Efforts now lean toward being sure this, and other echidnas have sufficient habitat to survive.

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