Echidnas are the oldest surviving mammal on the planet today, with
five sub species of short-beaked echidnas, as well as their close
relatives, the long-beaked echidnas; found in New Guinea. There are
four subspecies of short-beaked echidna found in Australia.
Echidnas are found all over Australia including regions of
rainforest, dry sclerophyll forest and arid zones. They are able to
survive extreme temperatures, with localised adaptions such as
denser fur, in several sub species.
Although echidnas are seldom encountered, they are widespread and
classified as ‘common’.
Echidnas are solitary animals and are not territorial. They have
overlapping home ranges which vary greatly in most centres their
home range could be as large as 50 hectares.
The short-beaked echidna is classed as a myrmecophage (ant and
termite specialist); however, they will also eat larvae of other
invertebrates such as the Scarab beetle, as well as other adult
beetles and earthworms. The size of the prey is limited by the gape
of the echidna’s mouth, which is around 5mm. The tongue can dart out
and extrude up to 18cm to catch its prey, with the help of its very
To find its food the echidna is extremely reliant upon its snout. It
will forage through the leaf litter poking its snout into rotting
logs and other potential food sites, until it can detect either the
smell or the electrical impulse of its potential prey. It will use
its powerful forepaws to rip open logs to reach its prey, or may
simply lie on top of a non-aggressive ant mount, and wait until the
ants race over its awaiting tongue; whereby the tongue is quickly
withdrawn into its mouth.
Spines and fur
The echidna’s spines cover its head, back and tail with only a
covering of fur on its ventral surface. The spines are generally
straw-coloured with black tips, and are both strong and sharp; the
purpose of these spines being purely for defense.
Echidnas in colder climates have less spines and thicker fur.
Weight and size
Short-beaked adult echidnas can weigh anywhere between 2 to 7kgs.
Neither the size nor weight of an echidna is a useful indicator of
age, maturity or gender. It is therefore very difficult to tell if
an echidna is a male or female unless a veterinarian conducts an
It is believed that female echidnas become sexually active at around
5 years of age and normally have their first puggle at age 6 or 7.
Male age at sexual maturity has yet to be determined through
Echidnas spend most of the year alone however when a female comes
into season (usually towards mid to late winter), ‘trains’ of
echidnas may be seen for up to a month.
The female is always at the front of the ‘train’ and she may be
followed by up to 10 males. The male who endures the courtship
period, and remains closest to the female, may be the lucky one and
have a chance to breed, when the female is receptive.
Echidnas are ‘monotremes’ each mean that they lay an egg. The egg
remains in the female reproductive tract until it is about the size
of a grape. The egg is oval in shape and weighs between 1.5 – 2
grams. Once the egg has been laid, it remains in the females pouch
for a further 10 days.
The baby echidna (called a ‘puggle’) hatches from the egg by using
its egg tooth and pull its way along the mother’s hair into the
During this period it is believed that the female echidna starts to
construct her nursery burrow, which normally consists of a metre
long tunnel with an enlarged area at the end.
The female echidna does not possess nipples to feed her young.
Instead she has milk patches within her pouch, whereby up to 150
pores secrete the milk onto specialized hair follicles. The puggle
suckles the milk at a rapid rate, whilst encouraging milk letdown
through ‘nuzzling’ at the pouch area.
Once the puggle starts to grow spikes (around 50 days of age), it
will be removed from the pouch and left in the burrow whilst the
mother forages for several days on end. However, the mother
continues to suckle her young when she returns to the burrow every
4-6 days, until the Puggle is around 200 days of age.
When the baby is around 200 days of age, the mother will return to
the burrow, dig the young out of the nesting area, and then emerge
from the burrow with her young echidna. She will feed it one last
time, and simply walk away leaving the burrow entrance open. She
will not return to the burrow again, hence avoiding any further
contact with her young.
It is important to consider the time of year for rehabilitating
female echidnas, because they may be tending young either in their
pouch or in a burrow. Therefore, it is essential that they be
returned to their place of rescue as quickly as possible.
If an injured or sick echidna is reported, they should be taken to a
wildlife veterinarian immediately for a full and thorough assessment.
Echidnas are very spiky and hence handling can be tricky.
Echidnas will often avoid capture by digging themselves into the
soil or other tight spots. It is very difficult to remove them
without digging them out physically. Digging should be far
enough from the animal to avoid further damage to limbs, snout or
other body parts. Do not use a shovel to dig the echidna
out – use your hands. To remove the echidna it is essential that
the hole dug allows the rescuer access to the underbelly region of
the echidna. To remove the echidna, place a hand just behind the
forelimbs on the underbelly region. Echidnas can also be picked up
when rolled into a ball with thick leather gloves to protect the
different method of handling can be used if the echidna is on hard
ground, which makes it difficult to dig either side of the echidna
to access its underbelly. One hind leg can be grabbed by the ankle
and the echidna gently lifted off the ground until the second leg
can be held. Do not use this method of handling if the
echidna is suspected of being injured.
For those that are not experienced with handling echidnas, the use
of a pair good quality leather gloves are strongly recommended.
Alternatively, use a thick towel (folded over) and wrap this around
the echidna to pick it up. The towel method though makes it
difficult to assess the back of the echidna.
Keep in mind at all times that echidnas are escape artists and climb
extremely well. Therefore, echidnas should be contained in a tall
plastic container with a secure lid (holes must be drilled into the
lid for ventilation). Layers of towels should be placed on the base
and in hot weather, covered ice packs may also be placed alongside
the container to keep the temperature below 25oc to avoid
The most common reasons that echidnas come into care is due to motor
vehicle accidents or being bitten by a dog.
Motor Vehicle Accidents
The echidna’s thick spiny covering can obscure many injuries, and
this coupled with the inability of echidnas to vocalise, means that
very often, the seriousness of their injuries is overlooked. All
echidnas that have been hit by a car, MUST receive a full veterinary
assessment by a wildlife veterinarian. The most common injury
sustained by echidnas is a fractured beak and often this is not
easily discernible. All echidnas that have been hit by cars should
undergo radiographs to ensure that there are no fractures.
Many echidnas that have been hit by cars, will wonder off the road
and many people will assume that they are okay. If they have
sustained a fractured beak, they will most likely die from
suffocation (as the beak swells) or will starve to death as the
receptors in their snout have become damaged and they are unable to
Any echidna that has been bitten or ‘played with’ by a dog should
receive veterinary attention. They can offer sustain serious
bruising and internal injuries and must be fully assessed by a
If you are interested in learning how to rescue and care for
echidnas, enrol to complete an echidna workshop through The Northern
Wildlife Carers 1800008290.
Caring for injured and orphaned echidnas requires specialised skills
and is generally undertaken by wildlife rehabilitators that have
several years experience with caring for wildlife.