In ancient Greece, there was a myth about a terrifying half-woman, half-snake; wife of the monster that was almost the gods’ undoing. Her name was Echidna. And so, when scientists happened upon this small, spiny, anteater-like creature, they decided the most apt description was to name it after the mother of the most fearsome monsters in Greek mythology.
Most echidnae species live in New Guinea, with one species having made its way to Australia, because along with the deadly snakes and spiders, they needed the mother of monsters too. This short-beaked echidna appears on the five cent coin, and echidnae feature heavily in the mythology of the Aboriginals. According to the myth, the echidna was an old man who lured young men to his cave and ate them. When the tribe found out, they broke all his limbs and horribly disfigured him, leaving him to crawl into a log to recuperate. When he emerged, he was an echidna.
At first, scientists thought echidnas were related to anteaters. They share a very similar diet, and the same long snout and tongue. However, anteaters are much larger, can’t roll into balls, and don’t have the hedgehog-like spines. Speaking of spines, echidna are infested with what may be the world’s largest flea species, which is around 4 mm long. That’s about the size of a pencil eraser. Echidnae have extremely strong claws for digging burrows, and have been known to destroy large logs and move paving stones. They dig these burrows to raise their young. Echidnae do not mate for life, the four-week mating process happens once a year, the males following females around in a conga line. If a female wants to get rid of a suitor, she will roll into a ball until he leaves her alone. The short-beaked echidna only lays one egg, and once hatched, the animal is known as a “puggle” and is about the size of a grape. They can be left unattended in their burrow for up to ten days without needing food. The young spend about 6-7 months in the burrow with the mother before being kicked out, and their lifespan is around 10 years in the wild.
You can see an echidna at the San Diego Zoo or the LA Zoo, with 28 captive echidna across 11 zoos in the United States. They are not endangered, but the Australian wildlife are constantly being threatened by the effects of climate change and expansion: deforestation, wildfires, drought. You can help Australia at the Australian Conservation Foundation, or sponsor an animal at the World Wildlife Foundation.