Short-beaked Echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus

The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), once called the spiny anteater, is the sole member of its genus and one of four remaining species of echidna. It resides in Australia and New Guinea, residing in a variety of habitats including grasslands, forests, coasts, and in agricultural areas. This species was first described in 1792 by George Shaw, who named it Myrmecophaga aculeate, believing it to be a relative of the anteater. Its name has changed four times since its first description, ending with its current name that references to its quick eating habits and the spines that cover its back. This species holds five subspecies that vary in appearance and can be found in different areas including T. a. acanthion and T. a. multiaculeatus.

The short-beaked echidna reaches an average body length between twelve and eighteen inches, with a nose length of up to three inches and weight of up to eleven pounds. The species has small eyes and its ears appear on the side of its head as small holes. The underside of the body holds dark fur, while the upper side holds spines that are cream in color and can reach a length of two inches, with insulating fur that can vary from honey-colored to black.

The legs of this species are short, but the feet hold strong claws that make it skilled at digging, as well as removing large debris like rocks and logs. It is able to regulate its body temperature by exhaling, using a refrigerator effect to condense the water vapor within it breath. It receives most of its water from termites, although it will drink from water sources when needed. The muscle that surrounds this echidna’s upper body and its shortened spine allows it to curl into a ball when threatened.

Although little is known about the behavior of the short-beaked echidna, it is known to live alone and it does not defend any territory or nest, besides the one created for raising young. However, individuals do live in a home range that encompasses between 22 and 474 acres, depending upon the region in which they live. Many individuals can share a home range and even share nesting sites. This species is active during the daytime in winter, but in warmer months, it must become nocturnal or be active during the dawn and dusk hours. It hibernates during cold months and will enter torpor several times a year in order to prepare for hibernation, although it is unknown whether hibernation is needed due to an abundant food supply and other factors.

The short-beaked echidna prefers to live near food sources and can be found wherever food is abundant, especially termites or ants, which it locates using its sense of smell. It uses its hearing when foraging for scarab beetle larvae during spring months in New England, suggesting that it also relies heavily on that sense for food. This species will dig for certain types of ants, using its strong claws to locate preferred eggs, larvae, and wings ants, but it can also use these claws to quickly dig themselves into the ground if threatened.

The breeding season of the short-beaked echidna occurs between the months of May and September, during which time males and females emit a secretion with a strong odor, which is thought to act as an aphrodisiac. The courtship ritual consists of up to ten males following a female around, from oldest to youngest, which can last for up to four weeks. Once a female accepts a mate, they will enter a shallow hole in the ground and begin to mate. While the couple is breeding, other males may approach them and the males will fight for breeding rights. The egg may not be fertilized for up to twenty-eight days, after which time an egg is laid within the female’s pouch and will hatch ten days later. Young, known as puggles, will consume large amounts of milk while nursing and the milk will hold increasingly large amounts of protein until the puggles are weaned. It is thought that sexual maturity is reached at four and five years of age.  The average lifespan of wild individuals is ten years of age, but captive individuals have lived for an average of forty years.

The short-beaked echidna is common throughout its range and is able to persist in a number of habitats. The main threats to this species include habitat loss and motor vehicle accidents, which have caused some local populations to disappear. Dingoes, various birds of prey, cats, foxes, ad snakes, among other creatures, consume this species. It is also threatened by an increase in hunting, which has caused to become extinct in many highland areas, and it can be affected by a number of parasites and diseases including Spirometra erinaceieuropaei, a tapeworm, and infections that resemble herpes. Breeding programs have attempted to raise young of this species in captivity, and although many have been born in zoos, there has been no success in raising them to adulthood. Currently, the short-beaked echidna appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Least Concern.”

Image Caption: Wild shortbeak echidna. Credit: Fir0002/Wikipedia