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Solitary but successful


 
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Dr Jennifer Sprent, from the University of Tasmania, completed an entire PhD on echidnas and here she burrows into these unusual ant-eaters. Echidnas are quite common around Australia although, being very cryptic, they are difficult to spot unless they are trundling around in the open.
They can’t bite people and are fairly easy to manage once you have hold of them, although picking them up is a learned skill. Fingers do get spiked along the way. They are not aggressive at all and, once handled correctly, are remarkably cuddly. They will occasionally make a cross-sounding grunting noise when picked up but it is not really a proper vocalisation.

 
Short beaked echidna curled into a ball, being moved off road near Exmouth in WA. Photo attribution: digital image by Nachoman-au

 

Echidnas are active during the day and night but Jennifer did not uncover any clear nocturnal pattern. In Tasmania echidnas tend to sit under logs or piles of leaves in warm weather in a bid to escape the heat. Echidnas spend most of their days resting or foraging, the ants they feed on being both day active and night active. Echidnas usually dig into the ant nests when foraging rather than feeding off the ground. Echidnas eat almost every type of ant, including jack jumpers and meat ants on the mainland, so their snouts are able to withstand bites until their beaks feel uncomfortable.
Echidnas have very small mouths in their beaks but massively long, muscular tongues, some 20cm in length. They use their beaks and front legs to break into the ground or roll logs and rocks over to uncover the ant nests. They then push their beaks in and their sticky, barbed tongues gather up the ants before scraping them off into their mouths. They do eat other invertebrates, pasture grubs or curl grubs being a favourite in Tasmania. Because they have no teeth they use their beaks to bash them, breaking the grubs’ body walls open and licking the insides out with their tongues. Echidnas do drink but they get most of their water from their food. In arid areas of Australia, their termite diet provides a lot of water.

 
Short beaked echnia - the most widely distributed echidas Photo attribution:Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

 
Echidnas are solitary creatures except for mating times. Then mating trains form with one female having males in tow, each jostling to be the dominant one. In Tasmania these mating trains can be three or four echidnas long whereas they can be up to ten echidnas long on the mainland.
Like the other Australian monotreme, the platypus, echidnas lay eggs, each female looking after one baby at a time. The mother echidna will dig a dedicated burrow for the baby which she looks after for about a month. Then she will spend time feeding herself and the baby, eventually leaving the baby to fend for itself.
Tasmanian echidnas also hibernate for up to six months but it is not a temperature-driven cycle as they start around March and emerge mid-winter.
Despite being quite common, their unusual appearance means these egg-lying mammals really are a rare breed.

Dr Jennifer Sprent was interviewed for A question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. summary text by Victor Barry, June 2015. 

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