Australia’s Spiny Anteater

By Jenna Gersie

One of the many wonderful things about living in the wilderness is the opportunity to see wildlife. My best experiences viewing wildlife were times when I wasn’t expecting to see anything in particular. When I lived in a state forest in New Jersey, my colleagues and I were drawn from our desks when a porcupine climbed a tree outside of our office window. While working at a raptor center in Vermont last year, my housemates and I spotted a Barred Owl perched outside of our kitchen window, and it took us several moments to realize that we weren’t at work, and this was, indeed, a wild Barred Owl. (It was infinitely more exciting to see one in the wild since we had spent so much time with captive owls.)

Living in the rainforest here in Australia, there are amazing opportunities to view wildlife nearly every place I look. I could do without the white-tailed rat getting stuck in my garbage can, but other fantastic moments include seeing a three-meter-long carpet python strung across the driveway; viewing the many species of honeyeaters that congregate in the fruiting trees outside of our office; watching pademelons, sometimes with joeys in tow, hopping along the pathway; and listening to the chorus of Chowchillas on the rainforest floor each morning. Sometimes, the wildlife is expected: it wouldn’t be a normal day without our Brush Turkeys (all of whom are called “Charles”) prowling around the site or the bandicoots (all of whom are called “Boris”) cleaning up after our evening meals. But sometimes, the wildlife is very unexpected, like today, when I was lucky enough to stumble upon a short-beaked echidna taking a rest in the leaf litter on the side of the trail.

This was my second time seeing an echidna. The first was down south in Victoria, where an echidna wobbled across the road in front of my car. We were both in motion, so I didn’t get a great look or any snapshots to prove the experience. Today, however, I got an amazing up-close look at this unique mammal, and even a few photos. Though its face is mostly hidden, you can see its beak poking out from beneath the leaves.

Echidna 009

There are two species of echidnas: the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), which lives throughout Australia and in New Guinea, and the long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijni), which lives in the highlands of New Guinea. These two species of echidna, together with the platypus, which is also native to Australia, are the only existing monotremes: that is, they are egg-laying mammals.

During the mating season, echidnas form a “train,” where male echidnas follow a female echidna in single file, nose to tail. Up to ten male echidnas have been observed following a single female! After mating, the female echidna develops a simple pouch into which she lays an egg. After ten days, the egg hatches, and the jelly-bean sized baby echidna, adorably known as a puggle (a baby platypus is also called a puggle), is carried around in the mother’s pouch for the next three months. During this time, the puggle suckles from a milk patch within the mother’s pouch, for the echidna does not have nipples.

Because they are mammals, echidnas have fur, and they are also endowed with sharp spines (which are modified hairs) along the back and tail. (In fact, the species name aculeatus means “spiny.”) When the spines begin to form on the puggle, the mother will remove the baby from her pouch for comfort’s sake, though she will continue to suckle the puggle until it reaches seven months of age. During this time, the mother will safely tuck the puggle away in a burrow while she goes out foraging.

Known as the “spiny anteater,” the echidna eats ants and termites, using a long tongue that can extend 17 centimeters from its long, tubular snout. The tongue is covered with a layer of sticky mucous that allows it to collect the insects. The genus name for the short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus, means “quick tongue,” which refers to the echidna’s speedy tongue as it flicks back and forth, catching prey. Lacking teeth, the echidna grinds its food between the roof of its mouth and horny pads on the back of its tongue. Echidnas use their front feet with five flattened claws to dig in the soil and leaf litter for insects or to tear apart termite mounds. They usually feed in the morning and evening, and sleep away the hottest part of the day, which is most likely why we found the echidna napping in the late afternoon.

Though shy, echidnas are actually Australia’s most widespread native animal. They are found in almost all habitats, from snow-covered mountains to deserts, rainforests, farmland, and suburban backyards—in short, they can live anywhere there are plenty of ants. Echidnas are not threatened, but they do have predators such as dogs, dingoes, foxes, cats, eagles, and goannas, and they are easily hit by cars. To protect themselves, echidnas may curl into a ball, exposing only their spines, when on a hard surface, or they may wedge themselves into crevices between rocks or logs or bury themselves in leaf litter and soil, again exposing only their spines. In the wild, they live for about ten years.  Though they are widespread, I was lucky to chance upon this creature in the middle of the day, but then again, I am lucky to begin with–I do live in the rainforest, after all.

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