For the last few years I’ve been privileged to live in Tasmania, Australia’s smallest and arguably most beautiful state. One of the wonderful things about Tasmania is the opportunity to regularly encounter unique wildlife. We have some of the most interesting creatures in the world and with many of them, you don’t have to travel far to meet them.
For example, I take a daily walk which brings me through a nearby bushland reserve. During the warmer months, I frequently encounter the oddly fascinating echidna. I’ll be walking along and an echidna will be foraging for food in the dirt at the side of the track. If I walk up slowly from behind, usually I won’t be noticed. But if I am noticed, the echidna doesn’t scurry away like most creatures might. Instead, it freezes in place, tucks its head down and hopes for the best.
If you’ve never seen one, an echidna is best described as a cross between a porcupine and a hedgehog. It has quills like a porcupine, but unlike a porcupine the quills can’t be released as a defensive measure. You don’t see Tasmanian dogs with echidna quills stuck in their noses! If you’re careful, you can pick up an echidna – though you probably really shouldn’t.
Echidnas are a type of monotreme. Monotremes are egg-laying mammals. The only other example is another Australian oddball, the platypus. Female echidnas lay a single egg into a pouch – they don’t lay them on the ground in a nest, so you’re unlikely to find any echidna eggs. The egg is incubated in the pouch and in 7-10 days the baby echidna (known as a ‘puggle’) hatches. It stays in the pouch feeding on its mother’s milk until its ready for the outside world, about 6-8 weeks. The development of the puggle’s sharp spines is what marks the moment – momma echidnas don’t like being poked.
They’re renowned for their slow metabolism and their typically low body temperature. In the winter months, echidnas enter into a type of hibernation known as torpor. By Canadian standards, winters in my home city of Launceston are quite mild. Occasionally it does fall below freezing, but most of the time daytime highs are 10-14 degrees Celsius. Despite that, you’ll seldom see an echidna in the winter. Even those relatively mild winter temperatures will put them into a state of torpor.
Other fun facts about echidnas:
- They don’t have teeth. Instead they have rough pads on their tongues and roofs of their mouths between which they grind their food.
- Male echidnas have a spurs on their hind legs which secrete a smelly substance thought to play a role in communication.
- Male echidnas also have four penises, but only two are functional at any given moment.
- Apparently because of their slow metabolism, echidnas can live up to 50 years.
- Historically they were used for food by First Nations. After all, they are easy to catch.
I’ve always had a fascination with wildlife, so my regular encounters with echidnas never get old. I love watching them waddle along and intently search for insects. But more than that, for me seeing echidnas is a moment to stop and praise God, the Creator of these amazing creatures. It’s doxological. Echidnas are unique animals, purposefully designed for their environment and also to bring adoration to their Maker. When I see one, I always try to remind myself that my Father, who holds all things in his hand, has put this one echidna on my path so that I would see it and praise his handiwork. Echidnas truly are eccentric members of the animal world, but like us, they were put on this planet for the glory of God.