There are some pretty weird mammals out there. I’ve blogged about a few of them, but arguably none are quite as strange as the echidna. All it takes is one look at it and you’ll agree with me. I’ve been meaning to blog about them for a while, but they kept slipping my mind.
Echidnas are one of two monotremes (egg-laying) mammals, the other being the platypus. There are four species, all of which are found in Australia or Papua New Guinea. One important note here is that one species of echidna is presumably named after David Attenborough. I’m assuming this because it’s called ‘Sir David’s long-beaked echidna’, and its scientific name is Zaglossus attenboroughi. I had no idea he had a species named after him. But he’s the best, and he deserves it. Good for you, David!
Echidnas are characterized by their spines, which are modified hairs anchored by muscles in the skin. They preform a largely defensive role, with echidnas rolling into a ball if they are threatened on hard ground. If threatened on soft soil, echidnas use their strong forepaws to dig themselves into the ground, until only their spines are sticking out. I don’t know about you, but I’d leave a frightened echidna alone if the only thing I had to grab was spines.
Another distinguishing feature of the echidna is its long snout. It’s part of the reason that echidnas look so funny. They use this to find prey, which consists of insects, usually ants or termites. Like platypuses, the snout has electroreceptors, although they have many less than the platypus. Instead, echidnas tend to rely on their acute sense of smell to hunt, and use the long snout to extract prey. Echidnas have no teeth, but have a ridiculously long tongue that can extend 18cm out of the animal’s mouth. It is covered in a sticky substance produced by the salivary glands that helps trap small insects. I sense another hollywood horror movie here – Attack of the Killer Echidna. Can’t you just picture people getting stuck to a giant echidna tongue? Echidnas also sometimes use their long nose as a snorkel when crossing water. Which is pretty awesome. So I guess in Australia if you see a small nose sticking out of water, don’t go in! Otherwise you might run into a very spiky echidna.
What really makes echidnas weird though, is their reproductive system. Male echidnas have four headed penis. That’s right, four heads. When he mates two heads do not enlarge, and the other two are used to deposit sperm into the female. With each mating, the side used to ejaculate is switched. When female echidnas are in heat, they secrete a strong smelling pheromone from their cloacas, which attracts numerous males. This leads to the formation of an echidna train, which consists of up to eleven males trailing woefully after the female, waiting for their chance to mate.
Once impregnated, the egg develops inside the female and is then deposited into a pouch on the female’s abdomen. She lays it here by rolling onto her back and extending the cloaca into the pouch. The egg stays there for ten days, until the puggle (yes, baby echidnas are called puggles) hatches. It then stay in it’s mother’s pouch, sucking milk of specialized patches in the pouch, as echidnas do not have nipples. Once spines start to grow, the puggle leaves the pouch. After all, momma echidna doesn’t want a spiny creature living in her abdomen. Puggles stay with their mothers for about a year, needing suckling for up to six months.
I’m sure you all have a great appreciation for echidnas now. They are weird creatures, and certainly look very strange. They’re kind of cute, in an ugly kind of way. I’d have one as a pet.