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Short-beaked echidnas

Short-beaked echidna

What are short-beaked echidnas?

The short-beaked echidna is a native egg-laying mammal known as a monotreme. They are easily recognised by their sharp spines, stocky bodies, short legs and long snout. The short-beaked echidna is the only species of echidna in Australia.

Their scientific name is Tachyglossus aculeatus which means 'quick tongue' and 'spiny' in Latin. They are sometimes called the spiny ant-eater.

The echidna is called barrugin by the local Darug inhabitants of the Sydney basin.

What do short-beaked echidnas look like?

The short-beaked echidna is covered all over with strong and sharp spines. The spines are made of keratin, which is the same substance that our fingernails are made of.

The colour ranges of these unique mammals ranges from light brown to black. Generally the echidnas found in warmer parts of the country will be lighter in colour. Those that live in the cooler parts will be darker with thicker hair covering their bodies. 

The short-beaked echidna’s noticeable snout is stiff to allow it to probe around in the dirt as it searches for food. Their small mouths are on the underside of their snout. Short-beaked echidnas have sticky saliva covered tongues which can be up to 17 centimetres long!

The short stout limbs of these echidnas are well suited to scratching and digging in search of food or creating a burrow to shelter in. The hind feet point backwards which helps them push soil away when burrowing.

Two of the claws on each of their back feet are used for grooming. Male echidnas have non-venomous spurs on their hind feet. Short-beaked echidnas have short stubby tails.

Adult short-beaked echidnas range in size from 35 to 53 centimetres long. Males can weigh up to about 6 kilograms while females can weigh up to about 4.5 kilograms.

Where do short-beaked echidnas live?

Short-beaked echidnas are found throughout Australia. They are found in almost all habitats including forests, heathland, grasslands and desert environments. They are also quite common in suburban areas, although their camouflage can make them very difficult to spot.

During extreme weather, echidnas take shelter by burrowing into the soil or hiding under vegetation, in hollow logs, rock crevices or by using burrows created by wombats or rabbits.

Amazingly, echidnas are good swimmers. They’ve been seen crossing rivers and creeks with their snouts poking above the water’s surface like a snorkel!

What do short-beaked echidnas eat?

The short-beaked echidna feeds by poking around rocks and logs and tearing open soft logs, anthills and termite mounds. It uses its long, sticky tongue which protrudes from its snout to collect prey.

The short-beaked echidna’s main food source is termites but they will also eat ants, beetles, worms and other invertebrates.

Having a specialised diet consisting mainly of one food source means that the short-beaked echidna has few competitors for food.

How do short-beaked echidnas benefit the ecosystem?

Echidna | YouTube | Field of Mars EEC (0:48 min) | Video transcript

How are short-beaked echidnas adapted to their environment?

Short-beaked echidnas are very good at deterring predators. They have a keen sense of smell that allows them to detect any oncoming predators. Upon sensing a predator, short-beaked echidnas can quickly wedge themselves beneath rocks or burrow straight down into soft soil.

The colour and shape of their spines act as camouflage in the surrounding ground layer. Echidnas also curl into a ball when threatened, protecting its soft belly and exposing only their sharp spines to the predator.

Echidnas are also well adapted to searching for food. Their short muscular legs, long feet and large claws allow them to burrow into ant nests and termite mounds, turn over leaf litter and dig into rotten logs.

They have a long snout and tongue which allows them to reach deep into ant and termite mounds. As they poke their tongue into every corner of these mounds, ants and termites stick to the sticky saliva on their tongue.

Echidnas have also been observed using their sticky saliva as a trap. They lie on top of an ant or termite mound, stick out their tongues and wait. As the ants or termites walk onto the tongue, they become stuck.

What is the life cycle of short-beaked echidnas?

The echidnas and platypus are the only egg-laying mammals, known as monotremes. 

For most of the year echidnas are solitary animals. Scientists believe each animal's territory is large and often overlaps with that of other echidnas. During the breeding season they probably use their strong sense of smell to locate one another.

Short-beaked echidnas lay one egg at a time into their pouch. The eggs hatch after about 10 days and the young emerge blind and hairless. The baby echidna clings to hairs inside the mother's pouch and suckles for two or three months.

Once the young echidna, known as a puggle, develops spines and becomes too prickly, the mother removes it from her pouch and builds a burrow for it. The puggle will continue to suckle for the next six months.

What threats do short-beaked echidnas face?

Short-beaked echidnas have few natural enemies but they may be killed by cars, dogs and foxes. Cats have been known to take the young.

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