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The Echidna is one of Australia’s strangest animals

Posted in Animals, Australia, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

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This edited article about the echidna originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 164 published on 6 March 1965.

echidna, picture, image, illustration

The Long-spined echidna or Porcupine ant-eater

Australia is the land where Nature never quite made up her mind when she designed the animals: so many of them seem to consist of bits and pieces borrowed from other creatures.

There is the platypus, for example, which has a beaver’s body, a duck’s bill, and lays eggs. Then there is the kangaroo, which can grow to a height of six feet, but at birth is an inch long and until it can fend for itself is carried about by its mother in a pouch.

But the strangest of all Australia’s strange animals is the echidna, or spiny ant-eater. In other countries ant-eaters have fur coats and have their families in the normal way. The Australian ant-eater has a fur coat, but it also has spines like those of a porcupine: and it lays eggs.

All animals have descended by the slow process of evolution from egg-laying reptiles, but the egg-laying echidna and platypus are the only two instances of present-day animals that still lay eggs.

Scientists have a special name for these curious links with animals’ first ancestors. They call them monotremata, from a combination of Greek words meaning “egg-laying.”

There are two species of echidna. One is native to Australia and Tasmania, and the other is found in New Guinea. There is very little difference between them except that the New Guinea echidna is rather bigger than its Australian and Tasmanian cousins and is more furry.

Sometimes called the native porcupine, the Australian echidna or spiny ant-eater is about the size of a rabbit. Its stomach and chest are covered with thick brown hair, but its back has a mixture of hair and spines. The spines are yellow with black tips.

When the animal is frightened it rolls itself into a tight ball and erects its spines. It never fights when attacked, but depends upon its barricade of spines for protection. And just how effective that protection is many an inquisitive dog has found to its cost.

Like all ant-eaters, the echidna has a very long, beak-like muzzle specially designed for boring into ant nests. The tongue is also long and flickers in and out of the mouth like that of a snake. It is covered with a gummy substance to which the ants and termites on which the echidna feeds stick.

The mouth is very small, being no more than a round opening through which the tongue is protruded. The mouth has no teeth, so that the echidna does not chew its food but swallows it whole.

The animal’s tiny, but very sharp, black eyes are at the base of the snout. Behind them are the ears, which do not have any flaps but are simply openings in the head. The tail is just a stump.

As with all animals that dig for their food, the echidna has short but very strong legs. Each of the four paws is armed with three heavy, curved and exceptionally sharp claws which can tear apart the stoutest of ant nests in a matter of seconds.

One of the most curious things about the echidna’s claws is the one on the second toe of each hind foot. It is very long and curved, and is not used for digging but for scratching the skin through the forest of spines on the animal’s back.

Echidnas spend all their lives on the surface of the ground. They make neither nests nor burrows, and at night just curl up in the nearest hollow or behind a stone or at the foot of a tree.

No special preparations are made when a family is due. The female simply lays her single egg and immediately afterwards transfers it into a pouch where it hatches and feeds on milk laid on through a teat.

The baby echidna lives in its mother’s pouch until it is about three months old and nearly six inches long. By that time its growing spines make it too uncomfortable a lodger in its mother’s pocket and it is turned out to look after itself.

Echidnas are very gentle and inoffensive little creatures and are quite easily tamed when caught young. In many parts of Australia they are kept as pets and do not even need to be fed on ants.

A pet echidna thrives on bread and milk mixed with finely-chopped meat. It also likes boiled eggs and has an amazing appetite for milk.

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