Beasts, birds, bugs and bushes of the Bremer Catchment

This is an introduction to some of the amazing species that occur (or used to occur) in the Bremer Catchment. Each month we will profile a new species. Previous profiles will be available as a pdf for downloading.

The Short-beaked Echidna
Tachyglossus aculeatus

By Natasha Moore

A baby echidna is called a puggle. Which comes from an old English term 'to puggle' meaning to clean drains. The name 'puggle' meaning a juvenile echidna evolved during early European settlement of Australia when rabbiters used to take a stick and puggle holes. Instead of finding rabbits they often would find these little creatures!

The powerful diggers with snake-like tongues

"Echidna" derives from the Latin word for "viper," probably because of the snake-like tongue the echidna uses to lick up the insects it eats. Echidnas evolved with the dinosaurs, 110 million years ago.

Today they are split into two genera, Tachyglossus (Short Beaked) and Zaglossus (Long Beaked), which is endemic to New Guinea. T. aculeatus (Short Beaked Echidna) is found in SE New Guinea and almost all Australian environments where ants and termites can be found.

Echidnas are long lived (as many as 50 years), solitary slow moving creatures, but excellent swimmers. They have poor eyesight but quick to detect movement and if disturbed roll into a ball, wedge themselves into a hollow or dig themselves into the soil so that only the uppermost spines are protruding. They are powerful diggers and masters of camouflage.

An echidna rolls itself into a ball for defence
Photo by G. Broun

An echidna burrow
Photo by N. Moore

All aboard the echidna love train!

The breeding season is June/July. A female may have as many as 10 males following her since not all females are reproductive every year. The courtship can last up to 6 weeks and these "love trains" are well documented. Females mature at about 7 years old, producing an egg every following 3 to 5 years. The egg is incubated in the pouch for 10 days, then suckled in the pouch via a milk patch for 50 days until the spines harden. The puggle then stays in a nursery burrow for about 7 months.

Echidnas dig for food, looking for termites, ants and small invertebrates. This activity helps to break up the surface of the local soils, ensuring that the surface crust is broken up enabling surface moisture to soak in rather than sheet off to the lowest point in the landscape. Digging also helps to aerate the soils, providing better conditions for nutrient cycling and opportunities for seed establishment. They have a long protrusible mucous covered tongue, but no teeth. They crush their food between their tongue and the roof of their mouth.

Echidnas in an agricultural landscape

Echidnas shelter in caves and rock crevices during the heat of the day and around this district they are mostly crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). The effect of agriculture and clearing has changed the areas that echidnas can utilise for refuge and as potential sources of food. The creation of strategically placed revegetation with good connectivity to remnants will enable the echidnas to safely and effectively range further a field and create an population which is buffered against the effects of catastrophic events such as wildfire, dieback infections and drought.

The numbers of echidnas in Australia is difficult to determine they are hard to find and not attracted to baits or traps. Very little is also known on the effects of habitat fragmentation on echidnas. There is a current nation wide survey of echidna sightings -–this information is needed to gather baseline data and ensure that our enigmatic echidna doesn't disappear.

The enigmatic echidna! Photo by Nancy Dewar

For more information go to:

Echidna Watch
Fauna rescue
Echidna facts

Past Critters Information Sheets:

The Malleefowl

Click here for the info sheet!

Further information:
The Malleefowl Preservation Group
Yongergnow Australian Malleefowl Centre