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Wild About Echidnas
16th June 2011
Echidnas are good swimmers. Those quills might be sleek but they don't look buoyant. A spiky swimmer seems a little odd.
Echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) take to the sea for two reasons. One, presumably, is for pleasure, a bit of a splash around. But like many animals echidnas also pride themselves on their looks and make time for grooming while taking their dip.
Trying to understand this penchant for swimming makes it easy to forget the echidna's more broadly recognised skills. This is a mammal that lays eggs. In that context alone nothing about them should really be surprising. What, if anything, could top this evolutionary juggling act?
There are just three types of egg-laying mammals, or monotremes, in the world. One, the long-beaked echidna, is found in New Guinea. The others, the short-beaked echidna and the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), are found only in Australia. Genetic sleuths have to go back some 60million years to find the reptilian thread that links the two Australian monotremes.
Craig Williams, 53, lives in the north-east of Tasmania. Echidnas are relatively common on Tasmania's east coast and Williams, who has been exploring the Tasmanian bush since he was bringing home live tiger snakes at eight years old, recently found the smallest echidna he has ever seen.
The young fella could fit in the palm of the affable Williams' hand. "He probably thought he was big enough to get out and start doing his own thing. Generally you don't get to see them when they're that small and I've seen thousands of them over the years. "
Young echidnas usually stay hidden until they get to a certain age and size. Keep safe in a hollow log, a burrow, or a pile of leaf litter while getting suckled by their mothers - in Tasmania echidna weaning occurs usually from 140 to150 days.
"The milk is very, very nutritious," Williams says. "A mother can leave a baby echidna from a week to 10 days before she comes back." The milk helps set them up for longevity. "They live to an ancient age. I've been told echidnas were sent to the London zoo in 1930. I believe the echidnas are still alive today. No-one really knows what age they can live to," Williams says.
Laying eggs, suckling young, swimming, travelling well and longevity are an impressive skill set. But it certainly not the limits of their talents. Echidnas have also mastered suspended animation, or torpor, a type of semi-hibernation.
When it's cold and food is scarce animals with gifts like the echidna can go to sleep for weeks to conserve energy. For echidnas, hibernation is not a response to cold. Male echidnas enter hibernation at the warmest time of the year, in mid to late February.
The echidna also has the remarkable ability to drop its body temperature from about 32°C (echidnas have a lower body temperature than most mammals) to about 5°C (or to within .5°C of the soil temperature). "The mother can give birth while she is in this state [of torpor]," says Williams. "She'll wake up and her eggs will be there. It's a pretty remarkable little creature. They tend to get overlooked a little bit."
Gemma Morrow is a wildlife biologist at the University of Tasmania. According to Morrow for all the echidna's fascinating traits it is their reproduction habits which is most astounding. Females do not breed every year and the males enter and emerge from hibernation one month earlier than females, usually from autumn to winter. The males seek out females in torpor and mate with them then. "We believe it gives them a higher chance of achieving paternity," says Morrow. "It's all about getting genes passed on to the next generation. If a male gets to a female while she is still hibernating there is a higher chance she hasn't bred. But there is a complicating factor. Often females re-enter hibernation after they've mated. But it is a way of males increasing their chance of success. They are pretty amazing animals."
Bat species (Vespertilionids and Rhinolophids) in Europe, Asia and Australia are the only other animals that possess this trait -males mating with torpid females - according to Morrow.
The echidna is reasonably common and easily observed in the wild in Tasmania. It's one of Williams' favourite animals. Yet as remarkable as they are, echidnas have to share his devotions with other animals. All of them are indigenous to Tasmania.
Eastern quolls (Dasyurus viverrinus), now thought to be extinct on mainland Australia, have also effortlessly found their way into Williams' heart. "They're cheeky, they're inquisitive, they're fascinating," says Williams who has nurtured his childhood passion for native wildlife and the bush into a business. He runs Pepperbush Adventures from Scottsdale in Tasmania's north-east. International clients make up the majority of his custom.
The Quoll Patrol is one of his most popular tours. Spotting animals in the wild can't ever be guaranteed but Williams doesn't have too much trouble seeking out quolls for his clients. Some of them have an address he knows well. They regularly set up home under his bush cabin. "We often see babies emerge from under it," Williams says.
The female quoll has six nipples and almost always has six young. "When they are born two of the six [young] will be black with white spots while the other four will be caramel with white spots. "This happens pretty much every time. It's one of the few animals in the wild that has a multi-coloured litter," Williams says.
When the young emerge from under Williams' cabin they run like little kittens around the paddocks and Williams still regards it as quite a sight. A pair of mating wombats, a family of white Bennetts wallabies and the two fighting platypus he has seen are far more unusual occurrences. Witnessing such rarely seen events is surely a privilege. Right up there with happening upon echidnas swimming.
Craig Williams specialises in tours featuring Tasmania's wildlife and wilderness: www.pepperbushadvenutres.com.au
10th March 2011
Greg Clarke regularly contributes to newspapers and magazines in Australia and throughout Asia. He once lived in London's East End, which aside from the proximity to ripping curries and cheap haircuts proved handy while he was at The Sunday Times. Greg regularly plunges into Tassie’s extraordinary wilderness as much for adventure as a way to shed some of the pounds he stacks on while sampling way too much of the island’s food and fine wine. When he's not travelling or writing his daughters take him on wanderings in search of fairies, wombats and devils.