Spiky yet loveable: meet KI’s Short-beaked Echidna

May 14, 2019

Kangaroo Island is renowned as a wildlife mecca, drawing in animal lovers from all over the world. Across the rugged mallee scrub, eucalyptus groves and pristine beaches there is an abundance of free-roaming wildlife, ranging from colourful bird life and impressive reptiles to well-loved native Australian animals such as the kangaroo, koala and the quirky echidna.

Kangaroo Island is home to a distinct subspecies of the Short-beaked Echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus multiaculeatus, which can be found snuffling through the island’s undergrowth. Tachyglossus aculeatus means ‘quick tongue’ and ‘spiny’, whilst multiaculeatus refers to the subspecies’ multiple spikes. Kangaroo Island’s echidnas have more spines which are longer, thinner and paler in comparison to the mainland species. According to Kangaroo Island’s resident echidna expert Dr Peggy Rismiller, the echidnas can range in colour, identifying as blondes, brunettes or redheads!

In the 1800s, the echidna aided a remarkable scientific discovery; they were the first recorded mammal to lay eggs and become known as a monotreme. The echidna is considered a quiet survivor, as research shows* it is one of our oldest mammals. Its ancestors are believed to have roamed the earth with dinosaurs in the Paleogene Period. For this little creature to have survived millions of years through such dramatic environmental changes, it must have some special physical and behavioral traits.

The Short-beaked Echidna uses its snout to unearth termites, ants and worms, catching the invertebrates with its fast and sticky tongue. Without teeth, it grinds the food against the roof of its mouth into a paste it can swallow. The echidna does not enjoy the heat as it lacks the ability to perspire and is most commonly seen at dawn and dusk. During winter it goes into hibernation, and with a high tolerance for carbon dioxide and low levels of oxygen, the echidna can spend a lot of time beneath the ground. In fact, they are considered the lowest energy-consuming mammal in the world.

As the temperature rises in spring, echidnas emerge to mate, and begin a process that continues to woo wildlife observers. Female echidnas lay just one egg a year, and the mating period is the only time the otherwise solitary animals go out of their way to meet one another. The female releases a pheromone that attracts the males in the area. Up to ten males then line up behind her and follow in her footsteps. This hike can last for up to ten hours a day, over several days, and is referred to as the ‘mating trail’ or ‘the love train’.

There are two theories to explain this unique mating tradition: one is that the males trail the female until she grows tired, slows down, and accepts the advances of the first male in line as her mate; the other is that the female recognises the compatibility of the male through smell, and that she is waiting for the right male to be directly behind her. Echidna mating trains can be seen by lucky visitors across Kangaroo Island at the end of winter, an incredible sight to see.

After mating, the male has no further contact with the female or his offspring. A pregnant echidna forms a temporary pouch to carry the egg. A young echidna is born the size of a grape but grows rapidly on its mother’s milk, and at six months the youngster leaves the burrow and has no more contact with its mother.

The Kangaroo Island Short-beaked Echidna has recently been listed as endangered under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act. Local threats include predation by feral cats and pigs, habitat loss and fragmentation, road mortality and some reports of deaths due to electric fences. When confronted by predators – or anything that frightens them – they will dig fast and deep into the soil or wedge themselves between a crevice or log. On hard surfaces, they will curl into a spiky, defensive ball.

These fascinating creatures are a key part of the natural ecosystem on Kangaroo Island and can often be seen around Southern Ocean Lodge along the driveway which leads through the bushland. A tiny, very young echidna has recently taken up residence near the lodge, known to staff and guests as ‘Enchilada’. Another favourite spot is among the coastal scrub along the boardwalk which leads to the Southern Ocean. With exceptional hearing and a good sense of smell, guests must tread quietly, they’re incredibly shy!


*Britannica Encyclopedia