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4 Types of Echidnas: Species, Facts and Photos

Spiky and ant-loving echidnas are often mistaken for porcupines or anteaters. They are also like platypuses for their ability to lay eggs as mammals. Let’s give this article a spotlight on the uniqueness of this animal. Distinguish four types of echidnas by their characteristics, habitat, and adaptations. Read on to learn more.

Echidna Classification

Echidnas, or spiny anteaters, belong to the Tachyglossidae family. These egg-laying mammals live in various regions in Australia and New Guinea, with each species occupying a specific habitat. Moreover, they are the most widespread native mammal in Australia.

There are four extant species, comprising the genera Tachyglossus and Zaglossus. The former has only one extant species, while the latter has three. The following sections discuss all species of these spiny mammals.

Related Read: Echidna Facts.

4 Types of Echidna Species

1. Short-Beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

short-beaked echidna
Photo by Charles J. Sharp on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Short-Beaked Echidna, a widespread monotreme, calls Australia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia home. The echidna habitat for this type ranges from the snowy mountains to the coastal regions, open woodlands, and savannas.

This creature's back, tail included, is a bed of spines. Among these, tufts of fur, sometimes longer than the spines themselves, offer further protection. It lacks external ears and teeth, but the back of its mouth holds pads.

In this species, males host internal testes and a peculiar four-knobbed penis. For reproduction, the female lays a single soft-shelled egg in her pouch. Within ten days, the young echidna hatches, emerging from the pouch three months later, covered in spines.

A female echidna shows exceptional paternal care to its single baby echidna or a puggle. Even though it has no nipples, the young will drink milk from the two areolae surrounded by hair at the center of the pouch.

In their diet, the Short-Beaked Echidnas prefer ants and termites. They use their front paws to excavate nests, scooping the insects with a long, sticky tongue. This foraging practice leaves pits, promoting fertility in semi-arid soils and contributing to nutrient cycling.

2. Sir David's Long-Beaked Echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi)

Sir David's Long-Beaked Echidna or Attenborough's Long-beaked Echidna inhabits the isolated forests and grasslands of Papua New Guinea's Cyclops Mountains. It is one of the rarest Zaglossus species due to its elusive nature. 

This spiny anteater has a shorter rostrum and size, closely resembling the short-beaked echidnas. Unlike other echidnas, it has short, dense fur in a distinctive brown tone, covering its sparsely spined mid-back.

Living in a limited area, this spiny anteater is critically endangered. Predominant threats include hunting and habitat degradation, making their survival a serious concern. 

Since its first sighting in 1961, it was only recently spotted again in November 2023. Strengthening conservation efforts is critical for the echidna's threatened existence.

3. Western Long-Beaked Echidna (Zaglossus bruijni)

Western Long-Beaked Echidna
Photo by Gunnar Creutz on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Western Long-Beaked Echidna is native to the mountain forests of Western New Guinea in Indonesia. It is easily recognizable by its coarse hair, which cloaks the spines on its back. It also sports a snout two-thirds longer than the rest of its head. You can identify males by a distinguishing spur near each hind leg's foot. 

This species thrives on a diet mainly composed of earthworms, cleverly using its spiky tongue to catch and ingest them. Termites and insect larvae occasionally supplement their diet.

Sadly, the Western Long-Beaked Echidna has seen a significant shrinking of its population by an estimated1 80% over the last few generations, earning its critically endangered status. This decline is attributed to hunting and habitat reduction, emphasizing the pressing need for conservation measures.

4. Eastern Long-Beaked Echidna (Zaglossus bartoni)

Eastern Long-Beaked Echidna
Photo by Matteo De Stefano on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Eastern Long-Beaked Echidna is endemic to the Paniai Lakes region of New Guinea. These creatures inhabit the cooler, tropical montane forests and gradually higher grasslands. 

Weighing in from 11 to 22 pounds with a body length extending to 39 inches, they're the largest living monotremes. These echidnas are draped in dense black to dark brown fur and white spines that often hide behind their lengthy fur.

The distinct difference between the long-beaked types of echidnas lies in the claw number on each forefoot. Unlike its Western counterpart, the Eastern species features five claws, with three to four claws. Their cranial features also differ, with the Eastern species showcasing a unique braincase.

Surviving primarily on earthworms, Eastern Long-Beaked Echidnas forage at night as insectivores. However, the species falls under the Vulnerable category due to rapid population declines2, with mature populations potentially dropping below 10,000. Like other Zaglossus, they face human predation and habitat degradation.

Extinct Echidna Species

Echidnas, known for their spiny coats and long beaks, have experienced extinctions in their family tree. The genus Megalibgwilia, exclusive to Australia and extinct for around 50,000 years, represents the oldest-known echidna species. These creatures thrived in warmer, moist climates, but increasing aridity led to their downfall. 

Based on fossil records, Megalibgwilia echidnas are believed to be much like the present-day western long-beaked echidna, with slightly longer forearms and a diet likely filled with insects like its relative, the short-beaked echidna. 

In contrast, the Murrayglossus is another extinct Western Australian echidna from the Pleistocene era, previously classified in the genus Zaglossus. Referred to as Hackett's giant echidna, it was likely the largest monotreme,  measuring about 3.3 ft and weighing 44-66 pounds.

Conclusion

Echidnas, also known as spiny anteaters, play an essential role in the ecosystem by aerating the soil through digging and controlling insect populations. 

Unfortunately, they face deforestation and urban development rapidly diminishing their habitats, particularly for the long-beaked echidnas found in New Guinea. Additionally, people frequently hunt them for their meat. 

However, effective conservation strategies can help protect these animals and their habitats. Every creature, regardless of its size or characteristics, contributes to the ecosystem's balance. So, preserving the echidnas is crucial to ensure a healthy planet.

1

Leary, T., Seri, L., Flannery, T., Wright, D., Hamilton, S., Helgen, K., Singadan, R., Menzies, J., Allison, A., James, R., Aplin, K., Salas, L. & Dickman, C. (2016). Zaglossus bruijnii. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T23179A21964204. 

2

Leary, T., Seri, L., Flannery, T., Wright, D., Hamilton, S., Helgen, K., Singadan, R., Menzies, J., Allison, A., James, R., Aplin, K., Salas, L. & Dickman, C. (2016). Zaglossus bartoni. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T136552A21964496. 

By Mike Gomez, BA.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by pen_ash on Pixabay.
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