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Sculptures by Phyllis Bone


The short-beaked echidna

Short-beaked echidna skeleton

The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is found throughout Australia and southern New Guinea. The males grows to a length of about 30 cm and weighs up to 7 kg; the females are slightly smaller. Echidnas can live for up to 45 years. Echidnas live in forests, woodlands, deserts and mountains. They are generally crepuscular (most active at dusk and dawn) and nocturnal. In winter, they become torpid or hiberate and are rarely seen.

The echidna's coat is made of coarse hairs and spines (modified hairs) that feel like finger nails. The spines are large and hollow walled for insulation; underneath the spines, the animal is covered in fur. The fur varies in colour from blond to black; most echidnas are dark. The echidna also has a short tail which is easier to see in the skeleton. When an animal feels threatened, it will burrow into the ground leaving the spines sticking out to deter any further attacks. Male echidnas have spurs and venom glands but they are non-functional.

Skull of short-nosed echidna

Lower jaw of short-nosed echidna

The short-beaked echidna has a long sticky tongue perfect for catching ants, its main prey, termites and insect larvae. The tongue and the roof of the mouth are covered with spines to grind up insect skeletons, making it easier for the animal to digest its food.

Echidnas are solitary animals, only coming together during the mating season, which lasts from two to three weeks in July to August. During this time, the female is followed by a 'train' of males; eventually she choses a mate but how is not known. The female usually gives birth to only one leathery egg. The egg is placed into a 'pouch' made by folds of skin, where it hatches after ten days. The foetus has an egg tooth, like reptiles and birds, which it uses to break open the leathery eggshell. The young feeds by licking milk from secretory patches on the mother's skin. It is carried in the pouch until its spines begin to grow when the mother places it in a nursery burrow hollowed in the ground. She returns frequently to feed the young echidna, which becomes independent in a year.