TECH & SCIENCE
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.