They are solitary animals, not territorial and have overlapping home ranges which vary greatly in size. In SE Qld an individual’s home range could be as large as 50 hectares.
Along their back, short-beaked echidnas have coarse hair and spines to protect themselves. When threatened they will curl into a ball and leave only these spines exposed.
Their short, strong limbs and large claws make them excellent diggers. Echidnas use this skill to find termites, ants and other soil creatures to eat and electric pulses in their sensitive beak helps to locate them.
They can also move objects twice their own weight!
These prickly little monotremes (unique egg laying mammals) evolved between 20 and 50 million years ago but are still of interest to researchers and scientists. Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary for example has worked closely with the University of Queensland researching breeding techniques with great success and is currently home to more than 20 echidnas at their Research and Breeding Facility.
They were actually named after “Echidna” – a creature from Greek mythology who was renowned as the “Mother of Monsters”, believed to be a half woman, half snake. Early on echidnas were perceived by scientists to have both reptilian and mammalian features just like their namesake.
Echidnas have no teeth! They put their slender snouts and strong claws to work tearing open logs, ant hills and other food sources and use their long sticky tongues (15cm long!) and pads on the roof of their mouth to break down food including ants, termites, worms and insect larvae – occasionally 40,000 per day!
On average echidnas been known to live for up to 50 years in captivity and 45 years in the wild. This is primarily attributed to their low body temperature and slow metabolism.
Echidna’s don’t run – they waddle – and actually have a maximum speed of 2.3 kilometres per hour. They are more likely however to dawdle along at around 1 kilometre per hour.
As echidnas fall into the extremely rare category of monotremes they lay eggs and have no teats. Once a female echidna lays the egg into her pouch it will hatch around 10 days later and come out the size of a jellybean, blind and hairless! They spend the first seven weeks post-birth in their mother’s pouch and are left in a burrow when the ‘puggles’ become too big and prickly as their spines start developing. Puggles are fed through special glands in their mum’s pouch called milk patches.
Not so scary
Despite being spiky, echidnas are actually quite shy and when confronted by a predator or frightened they will typically curl up into a ball, tucking in their snout and legs to hide and protect themselves with an armour of spikes.
While they might not seem the most active of animals, echidnas spend an incredible amount of time digging and moving soil, with a study showing this to be an average of 200 cubic metres of soil each year, per echidna! This improves soil mixing and water penetration, reduces run-off and erosion and ultimately makes for healthier soils which can lead to plant growth.
Your backyard Ernie
Echidnas are very quiet animals, do not vocalise at all and mostly move around at night. They are very secretive animals and will not move on until they feel it is safe to do so. If they sense any disturbance such as people or animals nearby they will remain stationary.
If you feel confident to do so, you can pick an echidna up and move it out of your yard or property into nearby bushland, however it is vital that echidnas are NOT moved more than 200 metres. They have very strong home ranges and, if a female, may have a baby in a burrow nearby. Moving an echidna away from the area would be a death sentence to the baby.
In Queensland echidnas are classified as a ‘specialised species’ under the Nature Conservation Act 1999 and as such you must hold a special Rehabilitation Permit issued by EHP or a wildlife care group to care for sick, injured or orphaned echidnas.