Short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

Also known as: common echidna, spiny ant eater
French: Échidnés À Nez Court Épineux
GenusTachyglossus (1)
SizeLength: 30 – 45 cm (2)
Weight2 – 7 kg (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Despite its name, this spine-covered animal has a relatively elongate, slender snout (3) (4). The spines are usually yellow with black tips but can be entirely yellow (3), and provide excellent defence against predators (4). Insulation is provided by a covering of fur between the spines, which ranges in colour from honey to a dark reddish-brown and even black. A number of subspecies of the short-beaked echidna have been described, distinguished by characters of their fur and spines (3). For example, the fur is thicker and longer in the most southerly subspecies (Tachyglossus aculeatus setosus), which inhabits Tasmania, than those inhabiting warmer areas. This echidna is adapted for very rapid digging, having short limbs and powerful claws, with the hind claws elongated and curved backwards (4). All short-beaked echidnas possess spurs on their hind feet (5); however, unlike the platypus (another monotreme), these spurs lack venom (2).

This distinctive animal is found throughout Australia, including Tasmania, as well as Papua New Guinea (1). Within this range, the five subspecies inhabit different regions: Tachyglossus aculeatus acanthion inhabits Western Australia and the Northern Territory, while T. a. aculeatus is found in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. T. a. multiaculeatus inhabits Kangaroo Island, off South Australia, T. a. setosus is found only in Tasmania, and T. a. lawesii occurs in Papua New Guinea (6).

The short-beaked echidna occupies a variety of habitats, from semi-arid to snowy alpine areas (7), including meadows, heathlands, woodlands, forests and Australian desert (1) (3) (4). This species normally shelters in rotten logs, tree roots, stumps, caves or burrows (self-dug or previously abandoned), or under bushes (4) (5) (7).

Individuals of this solitary-living species only come together to mate, during which a ‘train’ of several males may follow a single female hoping to mate with her (2) (4). The short-beaked echidna is one of a small group of egg-laying mammals known as monotremes (2). About three weeks after mating, a single leathery-skinned egg is laid into a pouch on the female’s abdomen, which is then incubated for a further ten days before it hatches (5) (7). After hatching, the young remain in their mother’s pouch until they are around 45 to 55 days old, after which time they are left in a burrow while the mother is foraging (5) (7). Juveniles continue to suckle until they are weaned at about six months old, at which time they are fully independent (5) (7). Echidnas both in the wild and in captivity have been known to live up to 50 years (7).

During the warmer months, echidnas tend to be nocturnal and to avoid the heat. At higher elevations, in more temperate areas, and during winter they are more diurnal, foraging around dusk or during the day (1) (4). The short-beaked echidna’s diet consists of a large variety of invertebrates, including ants, beetles, spiders, worms, insect eggs and termites, which are lapped up with the long, mobile tongue (5).

The short-beaked echidna is considered relatively common because it is widespread. Although, since European settlement and the associated threats of land clearance, road mortality and competition and predation by introduced species, it has disappeared from parts of its range (1) (8). The Kangaroo Island subspecies (T. a. multiaculeatus), is thought to be impacted by tourist activity in its restricted island range (1).

No conservation measures are in place for the short-beaked echidna, although records of road-killed animals along main roads are monitored (8).

For further information on the short-beaked echidna see:

Authenticated (16/01/08) by Dr. Peggy Rismiller, Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre, Kangaroo Island, Australia.

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2012)