Long-beaked and short beaked echidnas are animals with a snout modified to form an elongated beak-like organ. They have no teeth, a long protrusible tongue and, in addition to normal hair, they have a number of special hairs on the sides and back which are modified to form sharp spines. The long-beaked species, at 45 to 90 centimeters (18 to 35 inches) in total length and 5 to 10 kilograms (11 to 22 pounds) in weight, is much larger than the short-beaked species, which is only 30 to 45 centimeters (11 to 18 inches) long and 2.5 to 8 kilograms (6 to 18 pounds) in weight. In the short-beaked echidna, males are larger than females. In both species only the male retains the spur on the ankle of each rear leg.
The status of the long-beaked echidna is in doubt, as the area of its distribution is poorly studied. The short-beaked echidna is distributed throughout mainland Australia and Tasmania, where its status can be regarded as common. In Papua New Guinea it is still considered to be common in lowland areas, although both species are known to be preyed upon by humans for food.
Unlike the platypus, the ears and eyes of echidnas are not housed in the same groove; the ear opening (with little visible external ear) is well behind the eye. The snout and protrusible tongue are both used in feeding.
What Do Echidnas Eat?
The short-beaked echidna eats mainly termites and ants although insect larvae are also taken.
It procures ants and termites by excavating the mounds, galleries, and nests of these insects with the large claws on its front feet. The echidna then picks up the ants or termites with its sticky tongue.
It can push its elongated snout into small spaces and extend its tongue into small cavities to gain access to these insects.
The generic term Tachyglossus actually means “swift tongue”. The long-beaked echidna is chiefly a worm eater. It uses spines housed in a groove in its tongue to draw the worms into its mouth. In both species, mucous secretions make the tongue sticky and, in the absence of teeth, food material is ground between spines at the base of the tongue and at the back of the palate.
Are they Nocturnal?
Little is known of the activities of the New Guinea echidnas, but in Australia echidnas can be active at any time of the day, although they seem to be less active and stay buried in soil or shelter under rocks or vegetation in extremes of heat or cold.
They also seem to be less active during rainy weather. Like the platypus, they are unable to tolerate high temperatures and will die of heat stress if shade is not available.
The burrowing ability of the short-beaked echidna is legendary, with individuals able to burrow vertically down into the earth to disappear in less than a minute.
Body Temperature of Echidnas
Echidnas are endothermic and, like platypuses, can regulate their body temperatures well above that of environmental temperatures by raising their metabolism and using insulation fur and fat in the case of the echidnas.
In all three species of monotreme the temperature maintained is lower than that found in many other mammalian species, but is usually maintained within a few degrees of D. Parera 32°C (90°F) while the animals are active.
It is now known that the short-beaked echidna sometimes hibernates for two to three weeks during winter in the Australian Alps, when body temperatures of individuals can fall to 4 to 9°C (39 to 48°F).
- Little is known of the breeding cycle of the long beaked echidna. In the short-beaked species, a pouch develops during the breeding season, into which one egg is laid.
- After about 10 days of incubation, the young hatches and is nourished on milk suckled from the milk patches in the pouch, the prodding of the young stimulating the milk to flow.
- Lactation lasts for up to six months, but once the young begins to grow spines (around nine weeks after hatching), it is left in a burrow to which the mother returns to feed it.
- As in the platypus, the breeding season is extended, and mating normally occurs in July and August.
- The length of gestation, before the female lays the egg, is not known exactly, but is thought to be about three weeks.
- Like platypus females, not all adult females in a short-beaked echidna population breed each year but the reasons for this are unknown.
How Long Do Echidnas Live? – Average Lifespan
Both species of echidna are long-lived. One short-beaked echidna in the Philadelphia Zoo lived for 49 years, and a marked individual in the wild was found to be at least 16 years of age.
An individual long-beaked echidna survived for 31 to 36 years in Berlin Zoo, through both of the world wars, but nothing is known of the longevity of this species in the wild.
Predators in the Wild
Dingoes are known to prey on echidnas, in spite of the echidnas’ ability to burrow and their armory of spines. Foxes, feral cats, and goannas take young from burrows during the suckling period, but perhaps the greatest mortality factor is the automobile.
The role of parasites or diseases in mortality is largely unknown. Echidnas are readily maintained in captivity but rarely breed successfully under captive conditions.
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