The Short-beaked Echidna, also known as the Spiny Anteater because of its diet of ants and termites, is one of four living species of echidna. The Short-beaked Echidna is covered in fur and spines and has a distinctive snout and a specialized tongue, which it uses to catch its prey at a great speed. The Short-beaked Echidna lays eggs.
The species is found throughout Australia, where it is the most widespread native mammal, and in coastal and highland regions of southwestern New Guinea. It is not threatened with extinction, but human activities, such as hunting, habitat destruction, and the introduction of foreign predatory species and parasites, have reduced the distribution of the Short-beaked Echidna in Australia. There are five subspecies of the Short-beaked Echidna, each found in a different geographical location.
Short-beaked Echidnas are typically 11.8 to 17.7 inches (30 to 45cm) in length, have a 3 inches (75mm) snout, and weigh between 4.4 to 11 lbs (2 to 5 kg). Because the neck is not visible, the head and body appear to merge together. The ear holes are on either side of the head. The eyes are small and at the base of the wedge-shaped snout. The nostrils and the mouth are at the end of the snout. The mouth of the Short-beaked Echidna cannot open wider than .19 inches (5 mm). The body of the Short-beaked Echidna is, with the exception of the underside, face and legs, covered with cream-colored spines. The spines, which may be up to 2.2 inches (50 mm) long, are modified hairs. Insulation is provided by fur between the spines, which ranges in color from honey to a dark reddish-brown and even black. The underside and short tail are also covered in fur. The color of fur and spines varies with geographic location. The Echidna’s fur may be infested with what is said to be the world’s largest flea.
The limbs of the Short-beaked Echidna are adapted for rapid digging. Their limbs are short and have strong claws. The claws on the hind feet are long and curve backwards to enable cleaning and grooming between the spines. The Echidna does not pant or sweat and normally seeks shelter in hot conditions. In autumn and winter the Echidna shows periods of deep hibernation. Because of the low body temperature of the Short-beaked Echidna, it becomes sluggish in very hot and very cold weather.
The Short-beaked Echidna can change shape””the most characteristic shape change is achieved by rolling itself into a ball when threatened, protecting its belly and presenting a defensive array of sharp spines. It has one of the shortest spinal cords of any mammal, extending only as far as the middle of the body.
The musculature of the face, jaw and tongue is specialized to allow the Echidna to feed. The tongue of the Short-beaked Echidna is the animal’s sole means of catching prey, and can protrude up to 7.08 inches (180 mm) outside the snout. The tongue is sticky because of the presence of glycoprotein-rich mucous, which both lubricates movement in and out of the snout and helps to catch ants and termites. When the tongue is retracted, the prey is caught on backward-facing teeth, allowing the animal both to capture and grind food. The tongue moves with great speed, and has been measured to move in and out of the snout 100 times a minute. Numerous physiological adaptations aid the lifestyle of the Short-beaked Echidna. Because the animal burrows, it can tolerate very high levels of carbon dioxide, and will voluntarily remain in situations where carbon dioxide concentrations are high. Its ear is sensitive to low-frequency sound, which may be ideal for detecting sounds emitted by termites and ants underground. The leathery snout provides information about the surrounding environment
The solitary Short-beaked Echidna looks for a mate between May and September; the precise timing of the mating season varies with geographic location. Both males and females give off a strong odor during the mating season. During courtship “” observed for the first time in 1989 “” males locate and pursue females. Trains of up to ten males may follow a single female in a courtship ritual that may last for up to four weeks; the duration of the courtship period varies with location. In cooler parts of their range, such as Tasmania, females may mate within a few hours of arousal from hibernation.
Before mating, the male smells the female. The male is often observed to roll the female onto her side and then assumes a similar position so that the two animals are abdomen to abdomen. Each mating results in the production of a single egg, and females are known to mate only once during the breeding season; each mating is successful.
The age of sexual maturity is uncertain, but may be four to five years. A twelve-year field study, published in 2003, found that the Short-beaked Echidna reached sexual maturity between five and 12 years of age, and that the frequency of reproduction varies from once every two years to once every six years. The Short-beaked Echidna can live as long as 45 years in the wild.
Ecology and behavior
No systematic study of the ecology of the Short-beak Echidna has been published; however, there have been studies of several aspects of their ecological behavior. Short-beaked Echidnas live alone and apart from the burrow created for rearing young; they have no fixed shelter or nest site. They do not have a home territory, but range over a wide area. Short-beaked Echidnas are typically active in the daytime; however, they are not equipped to deal with heat, because they have no sweat glands and do not pant. Therefore, in warm weather they change their pattern of activity, becoming active at night. They can tolerate cold temperatures, and hibernate during the winter in very cold regions.
Short-beaked Echidnas can live anywhere that has a good supply of food. Short-beaked Echidnas locate food by smell, using sensors in the tip of their snout, and regularly feast on ants and termites. They are powerful diggers, using their clawed front paws to dig out prey and create burrows for shelter. They may rapidly dig themselves into the ground if they cannot find cover when in danger.
In Australia they are most common in forested areas where there are abundant termite-filled fallen logs. In agricultural areas, they are most likely to be found in brush; they may be found in grassland, dry areas, and in the outer suburbs of the capital cities.
The Short-beaked Echidna is common throughout most mild climates of Australia and lowland New Guinea, and is not listed as endangered. In Australia, the number of Short-beaked Echidnas has been less affected by land clearing than have some other species. Despite their spines, they are preyed on by birds, the Tasmanian devil, cats, foxes and dogs. The most common threats to the animal in Australia are motor vehicles and habitat destruction, which have led to local extinction.
Captive breeding is difficult, partly due to the relatively infrequent breeding cycle. Only five zoos have managed to breed a captive Short-beaked Echidna, but no captive-bred young have survived to maturity.
The Short-beaked Echidna is an iconic animal in contemporary Australia, notably appearing on the Australian five-cent piece (the smallest denomination) and on a $200 commemorative coin released in 1992. The Short-beaked Echidna has been included in several postal issues: it was one of four native species to appear on Australian postage stamps in 1974, where it was the 25 cent stamp; it appeared on a 37 cent stamp in 1987, and again in 1992 when it was on the 35 cent stamp. The Echidna Millie was a mascot for the 2000 Summer Olympics.
PHOTO CREDIT: Taken by Ester Inbar (July 2003)