Many people have heard of the platypus and know what they are. But have you heard of an echidna? The echidna is found in Australia and along with the platypus are the only members of the monotreme family which are mammals that lay eggs and produce milk for their young.
The natural environment of the echidna is rough scrubland. An echidna is a solitary creature and minds its own business. It may be active during the day, evening, or both, depending on the season and food sources. The short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, has dark fur that is almost completely hidden by a covering of hollow, barbless quills, called spines, on its back and sides. The long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijini, has little fur and much more visible spines. The beige-and-black spines on both species help camouflage the echidna in the brush. An echidna has a tiny face with small eyes and a long nose, sometimes called a beak.
Got ants? An echidna’s typical day begins by finding something to eat. Like anteaters, the echidna has no teeth. So how does it eat? The echidna has a long, sticky tongue to catch and chew its food: ants, termites, or earthworms. The nostrils at the tip of the beak help the echidna sniff out its next meal. Then the 6-inch tongue laps up the bugs or worms while hard pads at the base of the tongue and on the roof of the mouth grind the food into a paste for swallowing.
The echidna’s short legs aren’t made for running but for digging. The hind legs point backwards, with an extra-long claw on the second toe that can be used to “comb” or scratch out dirt and bugs that get in between the echidna’s spines. Its powerful front feet can dig straight down into the earth until only the spines of its back can be seen. The claws on its front legs are also useful for tearing open termite mounds. This digging ability comes in handy if the echidna needs to escape from danger. Some say an echidna can dig a hole just as fast as a human can using a shovel! Another way the echidna can protect itself is to curl up into a tight, spiky ball, hiding its face and feet. Surprisingly, echidnas are also excellent swimmers.
An adult female echidna usually lays a single egg once a year. The leathery egg is about the size of a grape. The female rolls the newly laid egg into a deep pocket, or pouch, on her belly to keep it safe. Ten days later the baby echidna, called a puggle, hatches. It is smaller than a jelly bean! The puggle uses its tiny, see-through claws to grip the special hairs within the mother’s pouch. The mother does not have nipples the way other mammals do. Instead, the little puggle laps up milk that the mother’s body secretes from special glands in her pouch.
Fortunately for the mother, the puggle is not born with its spines sticking out! It remains in the pouch until its spines begin to break through, at about 53 days. Then the mother puts the puggle into a burrow, where she will return to feed it every 5 to 10 days until it is big enough to go out on its own, at about 7 months old.