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Echidnas (Family tachyglossidae), frequently known as spiny anteaters, are found only in Australia (including Tasmania), New Guinea and nearby islands. They have the distinction, along with the Platypus, of being a “monotreme” - an egg-laying mammal – seemingly the most oxymoronic of beasts.

They have five toes per foot, the front ones sporting dangerously strong claws. The second toe from the inside on each foot is much longer than the others and is used for grooming as well as other things long sharp claws can be used for. They have a small head abaft a long naked snout which contains nostrils and the animal’s mouth with a long, thin, sticky tongue. They like grassy areas and open forest - rocky ground is preferred because of the availability of ants under stones and dead wood that they snuffle around and turn over in their constant search for food. They tend to be forever busy – although at a very slow pace when traveling. Their defence consists of digging themselves into the ground, using all four feet, until only their spiky back is showing. This tends to bewilder and put off any attacker immediately. On hard ground they roll themselves into a ball and depend on their spikes for protection.

They are between 14 and 20 inches long, and quite plump. They have spines which are really enlarged yellow or white hairs with sharp black tips and serve the same defensive purpose as a porcupine’s quills. The Tasmanian version has a coat of cream or brown hairs covering its back, longer and interlocking towards the rear. It has a shorter beak than its mainland counterpart. There is a New Guinea cousin (zaglossus) which is quite different – longer legs, three toes, less snout and the mature animal can be almost without spines.

Echidnas mate from mid-winter into early spring. After mating, it is only two weeks before a single egg is laid from the female’s cloaka – its all-purpose ventral opening – directly into a pouch where the baby (called a puggle) is hatched, ten days later. The juvenile stays in the pouch most of the time during the lactation period although mother will leave them behind, hidden, while she makes the occasional forage. Echidnas have no nipples but there are two areas of skin where the young can source milk by sucking. The young outgrow the pouch at about 2 to 3 months and are weaned at about 6 months.

Reference:The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of Animal Life. 1982 p25

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