5 things you didn't know about the strange and spiky echidna

September 6, 2017, 7:16 a.m.
The ever-adorable echidna.
Photo: Les Scholz/Shutterstock

The echidna is often called a spiny anteater, but this creature isn't actually related to anteaters. In fact, it's an unusual mammal that defies categorization in many ways.

Here are five fascinating details about this adorable but odd animal:

1. Though it's a mammal, it lays eggs. Other than echidnas, the only species to do this is the duck-billed platypus, which is the echidna’s closest relative. Each year, the female echidna lays a single tiny egg — about the size of a dime — which she rolls into a pouch that develops just before she lays the egg. The egg hatches 10 days later and the baby, called a puggle, laps up milk secreted by the mother in the pouch until it's ready to come out at nearly 2 months of age (and just before it starts to grow spines). It then stays in a burrow, fed by its mother every five to seven days, until it is about 7 months old and ready to live on its own.

2. Echidna species are called long-beaked or short-beaked, but echidnas don't actually have beaks. Rather, they have very long noses, which they use to sniff out meals of insects, termites, earthworms and other goodies. An echidna can also use its nose to sense vibrations made by prey, allowing it to home in on it. It then uses a long sticky tongue to snatch up the meal.

3. Echidnas may look like lumbering balls of spines, but they’re very active, traveling across a home range that might be over 200 acres in size. They’re also good at self-defense. According to the San Diego Zoo, “The echidna has three options when faced with danger: run away on its short, stubby legs, dig, or curl up. The echidna’s digging ability is usually its best bet. Some say it can dig a hole just as fast as a human using a shovel can! The echidna digs straight into the dirt until only a spiny rear end can be seen, making it almost impossible for a predator to grab and pull it out. It can also protect itself by curling up into a tight, spiky ball, hiding its face and feet. Surprisingly, the echidna is an excellent swimmer and tree climber, too!"

4. Those spines are actually hairs. The long spikes are made of keratin, and can be as long as two inches with sharp ends that help the animal protect itself from predators. There are muscles at the base of each spine that allow the echidna to control the movement of them independently. This comes in handy for wedging itself tightly into rock crevices for protection, or righting itself if it ever gets rolled onto its back. Even with such protections, it can still become a meal for dingos, feral cats, foxes, goannas and Tasmanian devils. Another significant threat to an echidna is cars. Hundreds are hit each year as they try to cross roads.

5. Three of the four echidna species are critically endangered due to habitat destruction and hunting, including Sir David’s long-beaked echidna, the eastern long-beaked echidna and western long-beaked echidna. Though the fourth species, the short-beaked echidna, is more widespread and is labeled Least Concern, it is still protected by Australian law.