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Don’t mind me

January 7, 2020

Venturing outside in the mid-afternoon heat last Friday with the temperature over 35°C I noticed a Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) waddling along, as they do, occasionally stopping to search for food. It meandered towards me and eventually clambered over one of my boots and then, after a sniff or two, over the other. Clearly there was nothing of interest there, so it continued on its way.

This encounter got me thinking about what a truly amazing animal the echidna is, and wondering how it would cope with climate change and, more immediately, with the catastrophic fires raging at present.

A quick search through reference books and on the internet revealed a surprising number of features unique to the Short-beaked Echidna, many of which help it to be a long-term survivor. In fact the fossil record shows it to be little changed from its Pleistocene era ancestors.

A few of its characteristics:
• unfussy as to habitat, as long as there is an ample food supply (predominantly ants and termites) and some shelter, it is found from sea level up to alpine altitudes and over pretty much the whole of Australia in a wide range of vegetation communities
• it can lower its metabolic rate and undergo torpor or hibernation for extended periods, allowing it to survive extreme cold, drought, floods and food shortages
• in bushfires it can dig down to about 1 metre and go into torpor, where it survives due to its tolerance of high carbon dioxide and low oxygen levels
• it is also a good swimmer and if necessary can dive deep
• it has the effective defensive mechanism of curling itself into a partly buried ball, due to its short flexible spine
• it is long-lived, sometimes up to 50 years in captivity.

Some other physical attributes are:
• it has fur between its spines and on its underside, the fur being longer in cooler climes, almost obscuring the spines in Tasmania – one piece of trivia related to its fur is that it can be infested with the world’s largest flea
• it does not have the ability to sweat and doesn’t pant, which helps avoid dehydration, but means it reportedly does not handle heat well (tell that to our echidna – out in the searing heat!)
• the male echidna has internal testes and an unusual penis with four knobs on the tip, while the female has a milk patch to feed the young which is called a puggle
• on each rear leg, the male has a small spur which, unlike the Platypus, is not venomous
• while it has poor eyesight, its eyes are well-protected by a hardened flat surface so they don’t get irritated by ants or impaled by sticks or its own spines
• it detects prey by smell receptors on its snout and possibly also by hearing
• it has a very long sticky tongue that can move very rapidly – the echidna’s generic name Tachyglossus translates as “quick tongue”
• and of course the feature that confounded early explorers and naturalists was that it lays eggs – a single soft-shelled egg laid into its backward-facing pouch.

Having apparently coped well with the extensive changes to the landscape that followed European occupation, the Short-beaked Echidna will hopefully be versatile enough to take climate change in its stride (or should that be waddle?).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    January 7, 2020 1:17 pm

    Wow! yes very versatile! I do hope many survive the fires and did not come up against a rock before going into a torpor.


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