Dear Readers, there was much rejoicing in the Bugwoman household this morning when news broke that Attenborough’s Long-Beaked Echidna (otherwise known as Sir David’s Echidna) has been found in Indonesia – the last time it was seen by Western scientists was in 1961. However, the animal is an integral part of the culture of the local Yongsu Sapori tribe, who helped the scientists in their seach for the creature. In Yongsu Sapori tradition, if there is a falling-out between members of the tribe, both sides have to find, and capture, an echidna and a marlin, a very energetic oceanic fish. Both creatures are so rare that by the time they’ve been found, the heat has gone out of the argument and people are more able to come together and reconcile. In recent years, the Yongsu Sapori people have decided that this process doesn’t have to involve actually killing the echidna as it is so rare. How the marlin fares is not recorded.
You can see film of the echidna here as it goes about its business. I can only imagine how excited the scientists were when they saw it.
An echidna is a most unusual animal – it’s a monotreme, which means that it lays eggs and produced milk from special glands on its chest rather than having actual breasts. The only other living monotreme is that rather better-known Duck-Billed Platypus.
There are five species of Echidna in total, but the rest live in Australia and Papua New Guinea. They are nocturnal and shy, and can burrow into the ground with remarkable speed if interrupted in their nightly hunt for ants and termites. The appearance of the animal looks rather similar to a hedgehog, an excellent example of convergent evolution – the two animals are not closely related, but have both developed spines, nocturnal behaviour and a taste for invertebrates. What our hedgehogs don’t have, however, is sharp spur on their hind legs – in Platypuses this contains venom, but in Echidnas the spur is innocent of poison. These are very long-lived animals, at least in captivity, where the oldest recorded animal reached 50 years of age.
Whilst Echidnas have not made that much of a dent in popular culture, I can heartily recommend the Platypus books by illustrator Chris Riddell. My favourite is ‘Platypus and the Birthday Party‘, in which Platypus arranges a party, complete with balloons. The consequences of inviting Echidna, an animal with sharp pointy spines, to such an event can be imagined, I’m sure, but (spoiler alert) in a very Australian fashion Platypus and his friends top each spine with a cork, so that the festivities can go ahead with everyone included. I also love that Platypus has a toy platypus called Bruce. Of course s/he does. There is something really appealing about the Platypus books, and do have a look if you haven’t come across them before and have some young people (especially animal-lovers) who might be in need of a Christmas present. After all, the earlier in life you learn about platypuses and echidnas, the more likely you are to care about them (and to be a whizz if the subject ever comes up in a pub quiz.