Due to their unique characteristics, echidnas, or spiny anteaters, are a subject of great interest in the natural world. Several types of echidnas exist, like the eastern long-beaked echidna, the western long-beaked echidna, the short-beaked echidna, and Sir David's long-beaked echidna.
An interesting echidna fact is that apart from platypus species, they are the only monotremes on Earth. A baby echidna also hatches from eggs, which is uncommon among mammals.
Additionally, echidnas have an electroreceptive system that allows them to sense electrical signals, which aids in their survival. These facts provide insight into the biology of echidnas and set the stage for further discussion.
10 Echidna Facts
1. Echidnas have unique physical features.
There are four echidna species. The Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is one. The other three are Long-beaked Echidnas that have more visible spines: Western (Zaglossus bruijni), Sir David's (Zaglossus attenboroughi), and Eastern (Zaglossus bartoni).
Short-beaked and long-beaked echidnas have evolved physical characteristics, like barbless quills or spines, to survive the Australian outback. Their spines are modified hairs that have hardened and sharpened into points, creating protective armor. This adaptation also resembles a barbed wire fence.
Moreover, a closer look reveals the echidna's distinctive facial structure. Its small head and elongated, flexible snout give it a cartoonish appearance. However, their slender snouts function dually as a mouth and a nose, aiding the echidna in foraging for food in narrow spaces.
While they have relatively weak eyesight, echidnas have a strong sense of smell and hearing. As a result, echidnas are adept at navigating their environment and locating food sources.
2. Echidnas are ancient.
These prickly animals trace their origins to when Australia and Antarctica were one landmass during the early Cretaceous period, around 110 to 120 million years ago.
Echidnas are monotremes, one of the earliest groups of mammals that laid eggs. The echidna's ancestors existed during the time of the dinosaurs. According to fossil records, the echidna's family tree did not always belong on land; their ancestors lived in water or spent part of their time there1.
3. Echidnas can use electroreception.
Like marine animals, echidnas can perform electroception, which begins in their snout, covered in electroreceptors. These receptors detect electrical signals from ants and termites, the echidna's primary food source.
When the echidna nudges the soil with its snout, it detects the underground electrical chatter and sends the signal to its brain for decoding.
4. Echidnas protect themselves with their spikes.
The echidna has a natural fortress of spikes, the animal's first line of defense against predators. When facing a threat, the echidna curls into a tight ball, creating a spiky barrier. Some echidna species even burrow with rapid-fire speed, leaving only spikes visible on the topside.
However, despite the echidna's defense strategies, some predators have found ways to breach its fortress. For example, birds of prey and dingoes can navigate past the layer of spikes.
5. Echidnas have fast tongues.
One interesting echidna fact is that despite their slow pace, echidnas have a fast-moving seven-inch-long tongue. The tongue sits inside its spiky exterior, and the echidna can shoot it out and retract it quickly. Their sticky tongues help echidnas capture their preferred prey–including ants, insect larvae, and termites–whose capture requires quick movement.
6. Echidnas love to eat ants.
The echidna, also known as the spiny anteater, prefer ants and termites, an adaptive mechanism for surviving their natural habitat. These insects are a rich source of protein, essential to their nutrition.
While foraging, echidnas use their sharp claws to excavate ant nests and termite mounds. Their elongated snout is a natural tool for consuming ants and termites.
Once they find the ants, echidnas use their long adhesive tongue to capture their prey. While echidnas lack teeth, their mouth and tongue have pads that grind ants and termites into a nutritious meal.
7. Male echidnas have four-headed reproductive organs.
Unlike other mammals, male echidnas possess a distinctive characteristic: a four-headed penis. Other species generally only have one tip.
Each of the echidna penis' four heads fulfills a distinct purpose during reproduction. During mating, two heads release semen while the other two rest. Then, the roles switch up in the next mating event2.
Outside the echidna breeding season, this animal tucks its penis inside its body. It only appears during the breeding season.
8. Echidnas lay eggs.
Like the duck-billed platypus, echidnas are rare egg-laying mammals known as monotremes, providing insight into mammals' evolution from reptiles.
After approximately 22 days, a female echidna lays a single leathery egg that measures around 1.4 centimeters in diameter. Unlike bird eggs, female echidnas do not place the egg in a nest. Instead, they tuck it into their pouch, a trait common among marsupials and monotremes.
The egg incubates inside the pouch for about ten days. Echidna eggs have flexible shells that can absorb water and gases.
When it's time to hatch, the baby echidnas, or 'puggles,' use a specialized egg tooth to break free from the shell. Then, the young echidna starts its development into an adult. After hatching, young echidnas spend the first five years of their growth in their underground burrows.
9. Echidnas are some of the world's longest-living mammals.
Another interesting echidna fact is that echidnas can live longer than other mammals. They can live in the wild from 14 to 16 years, while captive echidnas can live longer. For example, the oldest echidna lived up to 60 in Australia's Taronga Zoo.
Their slow-paced lifestyle and biological adaptations are critical to their longevity. Their lower body temperature of around 30-32 degrees Celsius and slow metabolism might affect their extended lifespan. Moreover, echidnas are solitary creatures that spend most of their time hunting for ants and termites; females reproduce every three to seven years.
10. Echidna populations are declining.
While short-beaked echidnas have stable populations, other echidnas face the threat of habitat loss due to urbanization and agricultural expansion. For example, Sir David's long-beaked echidna is critically endangered. Besides destroying their homes, these activities disrupt their food supply and ecosystem.
Additionally, climate change affects the food resources and mating seasons of these egg-laying mammals. However, there are laws in place to protect echidnas from hunting and capture in some areas, where violations come with hefty fines. Rescue and rehabilitation efforts for injured or orphaned echidnas are also helping to boost their populations.
Likewise, the research provides information on their ecology, threats, and conservation strategies. Educational campaigns and citizen science projects also increase awareness and promote ways to help echidnas.
What are your favorite echidna facts? Remember to share it with your friends!
Phillips, M. J., Bennett, T. H., & Lee, M. S. (2009). Molecules, morphology, and ecology indicate a recent, amphibious ancestry for echidnas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(40), 17089-17094.
Johnston, S. D., Smith, B., Pyne, M., Stenzel, D., & Holt, W. V. (2007). One‐sided ejaculation of echidna sperm bundles. The American Naturalist, 170(6), E162-E164.