Echidna, the weirdest critter

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(Host) There’s a creature that, with the platypus, form the order monotreme; they’re the only surviving monotremes. They branched off from mammals about 120 million years ago and the oldest of the 26 surviving mammalian orders. Commentator Ruth Page hopes they can be preserved from extinction.

(Page) What mammal looks like a porcupine, has a birdlike beak, claws so powerful it’s the only mammal that can dig perfectly straight down very fast, lays eggs, is silent, has a pouch for its young and can live half a century?

It must and does come from that land of unique, weird animals: Australia. It’s the short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus, which means fast-tongued and spiny, excellent ident-ifiers of this perambulating pincushion. Its spines have no hooks on them, but they can move them singly or in groups, at will. Echidna and the duck-billed platypus are the only mono-tremes on earth. “Monotreme” means “creature with only a single opening for both excretion and reproduction.” (There’s another echidna genus, the long-beaked echidna, living in Papua New Guinea.)

Echidnas are brainy; the neocortex of their brains, the part associated with reasoning in humans, accounts for almost half the brain’s volume; in other mammals it’s more like thirty percent. They’re tough to keep for study: they have back-pointing rear claws that can dig through wooden doors and plastic storage bins. One group of three penned inside an iron enclosure simply stacked up their water-bowls and climbed out. Finding them again can be impossible. They have no dens, holing up anywhere handy to rest or cool off; they wander in forest or desert, swamps or sea-shores, eating grubs and other small soil-creatures along the way. Toothless, they slurp up prey with long, sticky tongues.

Trying to learn more about the mysterious creatures’ habits, a scientist described in National Wildlife magazine said she tried to track them by radio transmitter. They have no necks, so she couldn’t use a collar; she fastened a tiny transmitter to one of the spines. In time the little animals figure out how to rub the transmitter off against a bush or rock, so that doesn’t always work. As for trapping them, forget it; even food doesn’t attract these wary little individualists. They are elusive and exclusive; they know the best way to survive is to be silent, lie low, and wander widely – they’ll amble around as much as 250 acres of varied landscape. They’re a protected species, but on the mainland, road traffic kills many. In some areas feral cats, pigs, foxes and dingoes do so as well. Warmth can kill them too. Their natural internal temperature is between 88 and 91.5 de- grees; above that, they can expire.

The female lays a single egg about the size of a dime in a temporary pouch, where the tiny puggle (isn’t that a great name?) hatches after 10 days and stays in the pouch for a few weeks. When the puggle develops quills the mother sensibly pushes it out of the pouch. She takes it to a nursery and visits to feed it every few days. In about seven months it has all its spines and can get along on its own. By then it may be as big as a newborn human.

This is Ruth Page, describing another of Earth’s astonishing creatures that we hope the human race can protect.

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