TECH & SCI­ENCE

Wangaratta Chronicle - North East Regional Extra - - Front Page - WITH CHRIS

SINCE the first time I en­coun­tered an echidna wad­dling along the side of the dirt road near the farm I grew up on when I was a child, I’ve found them fas­ci­nat­ing.

I was cap­ti­vated by this odd mass of un­du­lat­ing spines that looked both cute and dan­ger­ous at the same time.

And the more I dis­cov­ered about this iconic Aus­tralian an­i­mal, the more in­ter­est­ing I found them to be.

From their clas­si­fi­ca­tion and fea­tures, to their mat­ing be­hav­iour and re­pro­duc­tion, they are one of the most unique mam­mals in the world.

This week, I thought I’d share a few in­ter­est­ing facts about the an­i­mal sculpted on our five cent coin by Stu­art Devlin.

Their spines are ac­tu­ally mod­i­fied hairs.

Echid­nas’ bod­ies (with the ex­cep- tion of their un­der­sides, faces, and legs) are cov­ered with 2-inch long spines. Fur be­tween the spines pro­vides in­su­la­tion.

Echid­nas form mat­ing trains.

A strange process marks the start of echidna breed­ing sea­son.

Males line up nose to tail be­hind a sin­gle fe­male, form­ing a train of up to a dozen in­di­vid­u­als. Trains can last more than a month, with males drop­ping out and re­join­ing.

When the fe­male is fi­nally ready to mate, the males dig a trench in the ground around her.

The males com­pete for mat­ing hon­ors by push­ing each other out of the trench.

The last one re­main­ing gets to mate with the fe­male.

Male echid­nas may also mate with hi­ber­nat­ing fe­males.

Males some­times wake up from hi­ber­na­tion early and sneak into the bur­rows of still-hi­ber­nat­ing fe­males.

This can re­sult in fe­male echid­nas wak­ing up from hi­ber­na­tion and find­ing them­selves preg­nant.

Echid­nas are monotremes.

Along with the platy­pus, the four species of echidna are the last ex­tant monotremes, an or­der of egglay­ing mam­mals found only in Aus­tralia and New Guinea.

Af­ter mat­ing, a fe­male echidna lays a sin­gle, soft-shelled, leath­ery egg, about the size of a dime, into her pouch.

Ten days later, the baby echidna (called a pug­gle and smaller than a jelly bean) hatches.

Echid­nas are mam­mals with­out nip­ples.

Like all mam­mals, echid­nas feed their young milk.

But they do it with­out nip­ples. In­stead, fe­male echid­nas have spe­cial glands in their pouches called milk patches that se­crete milk, which the pug­gle laps up.

They’re tooth­less but make up for it with their tongues.

At the end of their slen­der snouts, echid­nas have tiny mouths and tooth­less jaws.

They use their long, sticky tongues to feed on ants, ter­mites, worms, and in­sect lar­vae.

The short-beaked echidna earned its sci­en­tific name, *Tachy­glos­sus, * mean­ing “fast tongue,” from its way of rapidly dart­ing its 6-inch tongue in and out of its mouth to slurp up in­sects.

Since they have no teeth, echid­nas break their food down with hard pads lo­cated on the roof of the mouth and back of the tongue.

Echid­nas have un­usual brains.

The echidna has a very large brain for its body size.

Part of this might be due to their en­larged neo­cor­tex, which makes up half of the echidna’s brain (com­pare this to about 30 per­cent in most other mam­mals and 80 per­cent in hu­mans).

Echid­nas live slow, long lives.

Echid­nas have the low­est body tem­per­a­ture of any mam­mal at an av­er­age of 32°C.

Their body tem­per­a­tures are not con­trolled in the same way as that of other mam­mals, and can fluc­tu­ate by up 6 - 8°C over the course of the day.

Their long life spans - up to 50 years in cap­tiv­ity, with anec­do­tal re­ports of wild an­i­mals reach­ing 45 years - are due to their low body tem­per­a­ture and slow me­tab­o­lism.

MONO-WHAT: Along with platy­puses, the four species of echidna are the last monotremes on earth - un­usual egg lay­ing mam­mals which were once far more preva­lent in pre­his­toric Earth.

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