9 April 2017

The short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

This blog post is about a fascinating egg-laying mammal called an Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) native to Australia.  The photograph was taken in South East Victoria, Australia.  They look particularly ferocious with those spines but in actual fact they are timid and elusive.  Echidnas are sometimes known as spiny anteaters, they belong to the family Tachyglossidae in the monotreme order of egg-laying mammals. The four extant species, together with the platypus, are the only surviving members of the order Monotremata and are the only living mammals that lay eggs. The diet of some species consists of ants and termites, but they are not closely related to the true anteaters of the Americas.  Echidnas evidently evolved between 20 and 50 million years ago, descending from a platypus-like monotreme. This ancestor was aquatic, but echidnas adapted to life on land.  The species is found throughout Australia, where it is the most widespread native mammal, and in coastal and highland regions of southwestern New Guinea.

Echidnas are medium-sized, solitary mammals covered with coarse hair and spines.  Superficially, they resemble the anteaters of South America and other spiny mammals such as hedgehogs and porcupines.  They are usually black or brown in colour.  They have very short, strong limbs with large claws, and are powerful diggers. Echidnas have tiny mouths and toothless jaws. The echidna feeds by tearing open soft logs and uses its long, sticky tongue which protrudes from its snout, to collect prey.  Echidnas and the platypus are the only egg-laying mammals, known as monotremes. The average lifespan of an echidna in the wild is estimated around 16 years.  Echidnas are very timid animals. When they feel endangered they attempt to bury themselves or if exposed they will curl into a ball, both methods using their spines to shield them. Strong front arms allow echidnas to continue to dig themselves in whilst holding fast against a predator attempting to remove them from the hole. Although they have a way to protect themselves, the echidnas still face many dangers. Some predators include wild cats, foxes, domestic dogs and goannas. Snakes pose as a large threat to the echidna species because they slither into their burrows and prey on the young spineless puggles. Some precautions that can be taken include keeping the environment clean by picking up litter and causing less pollution, planting vegetation for echidnas to use as shelter, supervising pets, reporting hurt echidnas or just leaving them undisturbed. Merely grabbing them may cause stress, and picking them up improperly may even result in injury.

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