Guest Post by Dr Fumblefinger: The Elusive Echidna
One of the greatest aspects of visiting Australia is experiencing it’s unique flora and fauna. Cities are fun to visit, but you need to get into the bush and outback to experience the REAL Australia. There’s nothing else quite like it anywhere. Fragrant scented forests of gum trees, kangaroos and wallabys bouncing around and, of course, the most unusual of all, the egg laying mammals, or monotremes.
Echidnas and Platypuses are both native and unique to Australia and belong to a special group of animals – monotremes.
The platypus receives more press because of it’s duck-like beak but it’s an aquatic mammal that doesn’t tolerate study well (often dies of stress if handled), so it’s not a good animal to study in the field. It’s pretty hard to spot a Platypus but if you have patience it is possible.
But the echidna is perhaps even more unique and mysterious than the Platypus. That’s what I’d like to focus on in this blog, one of the egg-laying mammals, the short-beaked echidnas.
My wife and I volunteered to study echidnas with a PhD scientist for 2 weeks some years back. It was at a research field station on Kangaroo Island in Southern Australia.
The scientists there had attached radiotransmitters to some of the echidnas and we would chart their movements in the field, collect fecal samples (to see what they were eating), and the like.
It was tedious work, but it did get us out into the bush and it did let us get to know and see these elusive creatures.
This set of photos today is rare because you won’t know the mother is carrying a puggle unless you’ve closely followed her (in this case by the field biologists on Kangaroo Island, using radiotelemetry). They are actually the rarest animal photos I’ve ever taken.
Echidnas, also known as spiny anteaters, are monotremes found only in Australia and New Guinea. These are quiet shy animals that you generally don’t see (although we encountered one on a hike in Western Australia several years after doing this research). Measuring about 30-35 cm when mature, they are covered by a coat of rigid spines (and coarse hair) that protect the animal, although like the porcupine it has a soft spineless underbelly.
The female echidna lays a small soft-shelled leathery egg which is deposited into her belly pouch. The young echidna hatches in about 10 days, the youngster suckling on milk from one of two milk patches (monotremes do not have nipples).
These photos show field scientists removing a young baby echidna (also known as a “puggle”) from its mother’s pouch, something rarely photographed (the puggle was weighed and measured, as was the mother from whom a blood sample was also taken).
The puggle at this point lacks hair and spines and is effectively blind, but when placed back in its mother’s pouch will continue to grow and develop sharp spines at about 45 days old. The mother then digs a burrow to deposit the spiny Puggle and continues to suckle it until it is weaned at about seven months.
The echidna’s diet consists largely of ants and termites, but they are not in any way related to anteaters of Central and South America, nor are the related to other spiny mammals like porcupines or hedgehogs.
Echidnas have very short, strong limbs with large heavy claws, and are powerful diggers, all the better to uproot anthills or termite mounds with. They have tiny mouths and toothless jaws. Echidnas feed by tearing open soft logs, anthills and the like, and using its long, sticky extensible tongue, which protrudes from its snout, to collect insects and live up to 50 years in the wild.
Dr Fumblefinger is an alias for Karl Anders, M.D (click on this link for the story behind the nickname). Karl loves everything about travel — researching it, the journey, the trip experience, and writing about it all! Karl’s been blogging for a few years now ( first at www.drfumblefinger.com, more recently at www.travelgumbo.com which he co-founded). When he’s not traveling Karl works works full-time as a physician in a hospital-based practice. He currently lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, only a one hour drive from his beloved Rocky Mountains, but has called Los Angeles, California, and Spokane, Washington, his home in the past. You can reach him by email at [email protected]
Interested in unique aussie animals? Check out the other animals you can encounter down under.