Mammal of the Month: The Echidna


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The glorious echidna shows off its fantastic beak

William Peritz, News Editor

If you’ve been following Mammal of the Month for a while, you may be wondering – where’s the platypus? I mean, at this point in the series they have to talk about it eventually, right? What a cool and interesting mammal it is, where can I find the platypus feature? Well as it turns out… that’s never going to happen. What we’re all about here is showcasing underappreciated and underrepresented mammals, and the platypus has been in the spotlight for far too long. If anyone reading this watched the masterpiece TV show Phinneas and Ferb as a child, which should be everyone, you probably have some familiarity with the platypus. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great mammals and deserve most of the credit they receive- but not all of it.

All the time you hear that platypi are the only egg-laying mammals. They’re not. Electrolocation is apparently a big deal as well and people tout platypi as the only mammals with this characteristic, but they’re wrong again. Move over platypus, because there’s a new monotreme in town – THE ECHIDNA.

First and foremost, the group monotreme is different from other mammals, characterized by a different method of reproduction (laying eggs) as well as different body, brain, and internal system construction. It’s a small group however, containing only the platypus and four different species of echidna. Tens of millions of years ago, echidnas evolved from platypi, adapting to life on land rather than in the water. Thus they have different living habits and dietary needs.

Echidnas take their name after the half-woman half-snake monster of Greek mythology, Echidna. They were observed to have qualities of reptiles as well as mammals, making it a fitting name. They are native to Australia and New Guinea and as such, they don’t handle extreme heat or cold very well. They burrow into the ground sometimes, or chose to stay in cozy caves or under forest brush for shelter. They also can swim very well when they want to, but prefer life on dry land unlike their platypus cousins.

Their back is covered in prickly spines that are visually similar to those of a porcupine (an excellent mammal who has already been featured in a past MOTM.) They usually live to be about 15 years old, with the males reaching sizes of 13 lbs and females reaching sizes of almost 10 lbs. They also have beaks of various lengths, depending on their species. Their beaks and diet are similar to those of anteaters, but they share very few anatomical similarities. Outwardly, they look very much like a mix between porcupines and anteaters. Just like the platypus, they are a beautiful blend of the Animal Kingdom.

The spines are effective in defense as well, as echidnas usually prefer to flee rather than  fight. Their strength allows them to burrow quickly to escape predators, while their back end is protected. Unfortunately, they are not invincible. Echidnas are threatened by their natural predators which include foxes and snakes, as well as pollution and habitat destruction. Additionally, in their native Australia they are regarded as a delicacy and are occasionally hunted to eat. However, the Australian people do respect the mammal and it actually appears on their five-cent coin.

Echidnas’ beaks are useful for more than just eating- they contain thousands of electro sensors, similarly to the platypus. These sensors allow echidnas to utilize electroreception, a process of sending out electric signals to detect objects around them, sort of like echolocation in dolphins. Since electricity travels better in water than air, electroreception is mainly found in marine or amphibious animals, making the echidna the only full-on land mammal with this ability.