Myall Koala and Environment Group
WHAT do they look like?:/strong> Echidnas vary in colour depending on their location. In the northern, hotter regions of Australia, echidnas are light brown, but they become darker with thicker hair further south.
In Tasmania, they are black. All echidnas have sharp spines covering the back of their short, stocky bodies.
The echidna’s snout is between 7 and 8 cm long, and is stiffened to enable it to break up logs and termite mounds when searching for food. An echidna’s mouth is on the underside of its snout, at the end.
This allows the animal to feed easily – especially when suckling. Adult echidnas vary in size, from 35 to 53 cm. Males weigh about 6 kilograms, while females weigh about 4.5 kilograms.
The short, stout limbs of an echidna are well-suited for scratching and digging in the soil. The front feet have five flattened claws which are used to dig forest litter, burrow, and tear open logs and termite mounds. The hind feet point backwards, and help to push soil away when the animal is burrowing. Two of the claws on each back foot are used for grooming. An echidna’s tail is short, stubby and hairless underneath.
Protecting themselves: The echidna looks fearsome but it is a shy animal and would rather retreat than fight if disturbed.
When frightened, it will curl into a ball with its snout and legs tucked beneath it and its sharp spines sticking out.
It will wedge itself beneath rocks, or burrow straight down into soft soil, to escape predators such as dogs, eagles and dingos.
Where do they live?: Echidnas are Australia’s most widespread native mammal, being found in almost all habitats, from snow covered mountains to deserts.
They are also common in urban areas, although their camouflage can make them very difficult to see.
Echidnas are usually found among rocks, in hollow logs and in holes among tree roots. During rainy or windy weather they often burrow into the soil or shelter under bushes and tussocks of grass.
What do they eat?: With a keen sense of smell, an echidna uses its long, hairless snout to search for food, detect danger and locate other echidnas.
Termites are the preferred food, which is why the animal is often called the ‘spiny anteater’.
After finding food, an echidna catches the prey with its long, sticky tongue. Because it has no teeth, it grinds its food between its tongue and the bottom of its mouth.
Breeding and life cycle: Together with the platypus, echidnas are the world’s only monotremes, or egg-laying mammals.
Their breeding season occurs between July and August.
After mating the male and female go their separate ways. Four weeks later the female lays a single egg into a simple pouch on her abdomen.
The egg takes about 10 days to hatch, producing a young animal which measures around 1.45 cm (about the size of a jellybean) and weighs as little as 380 milligrams.
The young echidna is carried around in its mother’s pouch for about three months until its spines have started to develop. It still stays close to its mother and continues to suckle milk through specialised pores in the skin inside mum’s pouch.
Although they begin to eat termites and ants soon after leaving the pouch, young echidnas are often not fully weaned until they are up to seven months old.
Echidnas have been known to live for as long as 16 years in the wild, but generally their life span is thought to be under 10 years.
Handling: Don’t attempt to pick an echidna up as you may injure it (or yourself).
Never put an echidna into the back of your car or on your car seat, as its ability to hold on and burrow may tear or damage mats or upholstery.
Most of this information about echidnas came from the NSW Government Office of Environment & Heritage website.
If you find an injured or displaced echidna, contact one of the local wildlife rescue groups such as Hunter Wildlife (0418NATIVE) or Wildlife in Need of Care (1300WINCWL).
To help our local wildlife we would love you to drop your surplus 5-cent coins into the donation jar (and enter the free guessing competition) at the Holiday Coast Credit Union office in the Myall Quays shopping centre.
By Ian MORPHETT