Monotreme is an order of mammals that are so odd, they originally confounded scientists and were at first thought to be hoaxes. Monotremes are egg-laying mammals, but that is not the only odd thing about them.

The monotreme with which most people are familiar is the platypus, that delightfully wacky composite of duck and otter, with webbed feet and a duck’s bill, soft fur and an otter-like body. It lays eggs but feed its young milk. It also happens to be poisonous, though not through its bite, but rather through spurs on the back feet of the male. (The venom is not lethal to humans, however.)

The only other known monotreme is the echidna, or spiny anteater. Just about the only thing that the echidna has in common with the platypus is being an egg-laying mammal. Instead of the duck bill, it has a tube-like snout. Instead of being sleek and slim, it is pudgy and covered in sharp spines. Unlike the platypus, which is hard to see, as it spends days in a burrow and nights under water, hunting, the echidna is land-based in its food seeking and is regularly up and about during daylight hours. As a result, it is easier to both see and photograph echidnas.

Echidnas, as their alternative name suggests, eat ants, as well as termites, digging into nests and mounds, inserting their log snouts and even longer tongues, and sucking the bugs into their mouths. (Echidnas’ tongues, by the way, are six to seven inches long, which is fairly astonishing given that the echidna itself is only about 14 inches long.) In a pinch, they’ll also eat worms, grubs, or beetles.

When in danger, the echidna digs rapidly straight down, then rolls into a ball and erects its spines, presenting a daunting array of bristles to would-be attackers. Echidnas have adapted to a wide range of climates, and their appearance varies accordingly. Those in cooler Tasmania have longer fur—almost as long as their spikes— so the bristles are not quite so much in evidence when they are not in a defensive posture.

Echidnas lay one egg, which hatches after about ten days. The milk the female offers a newly hatched echidna is so rich in iron that it’s pink. Newborns live in burrows for three months or so (the only time in their lives echidnas live in burrows), and then begin exploring. However, because they are born without spines, they are vulnerable for about the first year. Echindas then live for 30 to 40 years, though some have been known to live almost to 50.

Tasmanian Echidnas

Tasmanian Echidnas



Filed under Australia, Book, Geography, Nature, Science, Travel

4 responses to “Echidnas

  1. whisperinggums

    Nice post, waltzing australia. I’ve always loved that bit about scientists thinking monotremes were hoaxes. You can see why, really, can’t you – especially with the platypus. Have you see the book on the platypus by Anne Moyal? It’s called “Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World”!

    • No, I haven’t read Moyal’s book. It sounds like fun. I do love it when things surprise and baffle people — like the fact that, aerodynamically speaking, bees “can’t” fly, and when we got close enough to Saturn to take photos, we found that the rings were braided — had everyone scratching their heads. I think it’s God’s way of keeping the scientists from getting too full of themselves.

  2. Aqua Regia

    The meme that scientists said that bees, bumble bees in particular, could not fly was a hoax itself. No scientist ever said that. It is a myth.

    • Okay — having heard that all my life, and from many sources in more than one country, it seemed reliable, but based on your comment, I did a bit more research — and a scientist (a German aerodynamics expert at a technical university in the 1930s) did say it, but then reconsidered and decided he was wrong. It turns out that the real mystery was not the aerodynamics and whether bees could fly, but rather how they could move their wings fast enough to create the needed lift. It’s still pretty amazing, even now that they think they know how it works. So while the bees not being aerodynamically able to fly was an error, bees still baffled scientists — and that’s the fun part — things scientists have trouble explaining.

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