They look like a cross between a hedgehog and an anteater, but the oddly cuddly echidnas are actually one of the weirder animals you might meet. Found in Australia and New Guinea, these little guys have a lot in common with other famous Australian animals.
The echidna – pronounced “i-kid-na” – is sometimes called a spiny anteater but that’s because it has sharp spines and likes to eat ants. It’s not related to anteaters, or to porcupines or hedgehogs either, though they look alike. The echidna actually has the most in common with the duck-billed platypus.
The duck-billed platypus and the echidna are the only mammals in the world that lay eggs. Mammals – which are what people are – are warm-blooded, grow hair or fur, and have babies that aren’t hatched out of eggs like birds or reptiles. Echidnas have all those things, except for the egg bit. Mother echidnas lay a tiny dime-sized egg into a pouch on their bellies. After about 10 days the egg hatches a baby echidna, called a puggle. The puggle hangs out in the pouch for almost 2 months, moving into the family den before they grow those sharp spines. Good timing!
Echidnas have two kinds of hair – short fur for warmth and then longer hairs that are hard and spiky. The spiny hairs are sharp and they’re the echidna’s main defence. When they feel scared they curl into a ball, like a hedgehog, so the spines are on the outside, or they burrow into the ground or under logs, showing only their back to the world.
Echidnas don’t have any teeth, but they have a soft diet made up mainly of ants and termites. Echidnas have amazing snouts that can sense insects and their movements. When they’ve located a meal, the echidna’s long tongue shoots out to scoop up a snack.
Echidnas may be warm-blooded but they have the lowest body temperatures of any mammals – a chilly 32°C. For people it’s 37°C. The echidna has a pretty chill personality too, moving slowly, avoiding the heat during the day, and going into hibernation in the winter. Because of their slow lifestyles echidnas can live up to 50 years.
Despite being so mellow, echidnas get things done. They have large territories that they range over looking for food. And their short legs are very strong, with wide claws on the end – they use them to dig into the ground, better than a shovel, and to tear apart old logs to look for bugs. Echidnas are also thought to be very smart, with large brains for their size. One problem with their smartness is that they’re good at avoiding people, even the scientists who want to study them, so echidnas remain one of the most mysterious cute animals out there.