Biology

Echidnas are the oldest surviving mammal, with five sub-species of short-beaked echidnas found in Australia. Their close relatives, the long-beaked echidnas, are found in New Guinea.

Distribution

Echidnas are found all over Australia including regions of rainforest, dry sclerophyll forest and arid zones. They can survive extreme temperatures with localised adaptations such as denser fur found in several sub-species.

Although echidnas are seldom seen by people, they are widespread and relatively common.

Home range

Echidnas are solitary animals and are not territorial. They have overlapping home ranges, which vary greatly in size. In South-east Queensland an individual’s home range could be as large as 50 hectares.

The short-beaked echidna is classed as a myrmecophage (ant and termite specialist); however, they will also eat larvae of other invertebrates such as the Scarab beetle (Scarabaeidae), as well as other adult beetles and earthworms. The size of prey is limited by the gape of the echidna’s mouth, which is around 5mm. The tongue can dart out and reach up to 18cm to catch its prey, with the help of its very sticky saliva.

To find its food the echidna is extremely reliant upon its snout. It will forage through the leaf litter poking it’s snout into rotting logs and other potential food sites until it can detect either the smell or the electrical impulse of its potential prey. It will use its powerful forearms and claws to rip open logs and ant mounds to reach its content

Anatomy

An echidna’s spines cover its head, back and tail, with only a covering of fur on its ventral surface (belly). The spines are generally straw-coloured with black tips, and are both strong and sharp. The purpose of the spines is purely for defence. Echidnas in colder climates have less spines and thicker fur.

Adult short-beaked echidnas can weigh anywhere between 2 and 7kgs. Neither the size nor weight of an echidna is a useful indicator of age, maturity or gender. It is therefore very difficult to tell if an echidna is a male or female unless an experienced veterinarian conducts an ultrasound, or there is obvious evidence of the sex (such as the presence of a baby).

It is believed that female echidnas become sexually active at around 5 years of age and normally have their first baby (called a puggle) at 6 or 7 years of age.

Echidnas will often blow clear bubbles from their nostrils, which is perfectly normal. This is their way of blowing dirt from their nose, which can accumulate while they dig for food. Bubbles that are tinged with blood are however not normal and indicates trauma requiring immediate care.

Reproduction

Echidnas spend most of the year alone, however when a female comes into season (usually towards mid to late winter), ‘trains’ of echidnas may be seen for up to a month.

When observed, the ‘train’ is generally led by the female and she may be followed by up to 10 males. The male who endures the courtship period, and remains closest to the female, may be the lucky one and have a chance to breed once the female is receptive.

Echidnas are monotremes which means that they lay an egg instead of giving birth to live young. The egg remains in the female reproductive tract until it is about the size of a grape. The egg is oval and weighs between 1.5 and 2 grams. Once the egg has been laid, it remains in the female’s pouch for a further 10 days.

The baby echidna (puggle) hatches from the egg by using an egg tooth to crack the shell, and pulls its way along the mother’s hair to the pouch area. During this period, it is believed that the female echidna starts to construct her nursery burrow, which normally consists of a metre-long tunnel with an enlarged area at the end where she will deposit her baby.

The female echidna does not possess nipples or teats to feed her young. Instead, she has milk patches in her pouch area, where fine pores secrete the milk onto specialized hair follicles. The puggle suckles the milk at a rapid rate, whilst encouraging milk letdown through ‘nuzzling’ at the pouch area.

Once the puggle starts to grow spikes (around 50 days of age), the mother will leave the baby in the burrow whilst she forages for several days at a time. She will return to the burrow every 4 to 6 days to feed the baby.

When the baby is around 200 days old, the mother will return to the burrow, dig the young out of the nesting area, and then emerge from the burrow with her young echidna. She will feed it one last time and then leave the burrow entrance open. She will not return to the burrow again and will generally have no further contact with her young.

When an echidna is brought into care during the breeding season, it is imperative to remember that if it is a female she may have a young either in her pouch or in a burrow. Therefore, it is essential that she be returned to her place of rescue as quickly as possible and not relocated. It is very important to ask and record where the echidna was found.

Handling Echidnas

Echidnas are very spiky and handling them can be tricky. They are also extremely strong, can climb well and are great escape artists! It is important that they are always placed into an appropriate container such as a tall plastic container (e.g. a bin) with a secure lid with holes drilled in the lid for ventilation. Layers of towels should be placed on the bottom. In hot weather, one of the towels should be dampened with cool water to keep the temperature below 25°C and avoid the echidna overheating.

Echidnas will often avoid capture by digging themselves into the soil or other tight spots. It is very difficult to remove them without digging them out physically. NEVER use a shovel to dig an echidna out – only ever use your hands to prevent accidental injury to the animal. To remove the echidna, place a hand just behind the forelimbs on the underbelly. Echidnas can also be picked up when rolled into a ball with thick leather gloves to protect your hands.

For those that are not experienced with handling echidnas, the use of a pair good quality leather gloves are strongly recommended. Alternatively, use a thick towel (folded over) and wrap this around the echidna to pick it up. Please note: unlike the platypus the echidna does not have a venomous spur.

Common Reasons for Care

Echidna in the yard

Dogs often raise the alarm about an echidna in the yard. Echidnas are very quiet animals (they do not vocalise at all) and move around mostly at night. They are very common in all areas of Australia including suburban areas and they are frequently found in people’s backyards looking for ants, termites and grubs.

It is important that you contain your dog and leave the echidna to find its own way out of your yard. Generally, if it was able to get into your yard, then it will be able to find its way back out. Echidnas are very secretive animals so they will not move on until they feel that it is safe to do so. If they sense any disturbance (such as people or animals nearby), they will remain stationary and will not move on.

If you feel confident to do so, you can pick the echidna up and move it out of your yard into nearby bushland, however it is vital that echidnas are NOT moved more than 200 metres. Remember that they have very strong home ranges and if a female, they may have a baby in a burrow nearby. Moving the echidna away from the area will be a death sentence to the baby.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

The echidna’s thick spiny covering can obscure many injuries, and this, coupled with their inability to vocalise, means that very often the seriousness of their injuries is overlooked. Any echidna that has been hit by a vehicle must come into care for a full veterinary assessment.

The most common injury found in road trauma echidnas is a fractured beak; this is not easily identifiable without an x-ray. Even if the echidna moves off the road itself, it could still have life-threatening injuries. The fracture site in an echidna’s beak swells quickly and impacts on their ability to breathe. If left untreated, they can suffocate or will starve to death as the receptors in their snout could be damaged and prevent them from locating food.

If you find an echidna that has been hit by a car:

  • Ring your local wildlife organisation immediately who will find a wildlife volunteer to attend.
  • Stay with the echidna and keep an eye on it until the volunteer arrives.
  • If you are confident to do so, you can pick the echidna up and place it in a secure, ventilated container.
  • Echidnas must be kept COOL. In hot weather, put a damp towel over the animal and place it in a cool spot.

Dog attack

Any echidna that has been in contact with a dog must come into care and receive a full veterinary assessment. Because of their unique anatomical structure, it is difficult to determine if there are any injuries without a general anaesthetic. Surprisingly it is not uncommon for dogs to pick an echidna up in their mouth and cause punctures to their skin, which are difficult to see through their spines and fur.

If your dog has inadvertently come into contact with an echidna:-

  • If you can, pick the echidna up and place it into a secure, ventilated container.
  • Take it to your closest wildlife hospital or contact your local wildlife rescue organisation.
  • If you are unable to pick the echidna up, or it has dug itself into a difficult spot, please lock your dogs out of sight of the animal to minimise stress, keep an eye on the echidna, and call your local wildlife rescue organisation.
  • It is important that any injured animal receives veterinary treatment as soon as possible. Treating injuries such as wounds requires the prompt administration of antibiotics to ensure a successful outcome.

Caring for Echidnas

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.

Caring for injured and orphaned echidnas requires specialised skills and is generally undertaken by wildlife rehabilitators that have several years’ experience with caring for wildlife.

If you are interested in learning how to rescue and care for echidnas, enrol to complete an echidna workshop through WILDCARE.