There are two species of echidnas:
- the long-beaked echidna, which is confined to the highlands of New Guinea; and
- the short-beaked echidna is common throughout most of temperate Australia and lowland New Guinea.
Although widely distributed within NSW, the short-beaked echidna is not readily seen in the wild because of its quiet, reclusive nature. The short-beaked echidna is not listed as endangered.
What do they look like?
The short-beaked echidna is the smaller of the species, and individuals vary in colour depending on their location. In the northern, hotter regions, echidnas are light brown, but they become darker with thicker hair further south. In Tasmania, they are black. All echidnas have sharp spines covering the back of their short, stocky bodies.
The short-beaked echidna's snout is between 7 and 8cm long, and is stiffened to enable the animal to break up logs and termite mounds when searching for food. An echidna's mouth is on the underside of its snout, at the end. This allows the animal to feed easily - especially when suckling. Adult echidnas vary in size, from 35 to 53cm. Males weigh about 6 kilograms, while females weigh about 4.5 kilograms.
The short, stout limbs of an echidna are well-suited for scratching and digging in the soil. The front feet have five flattened claws which are used to dig forest litter, burrow, and tear open logs and termite mounds. The hind feet point backwards, and help to push soil away when the animal is burrowing. Two of the claws on each back foot are used for grooming. An echidna's tail is short, stubby and hairless underneath.
The echidna looks fearsome enough, but it is a shy animal and would rather retreat than fight if disturbed. When frightened it will curl into a ball, with its snout and legs tucked beneath it and its sharp spines sticking out. It will wedge itself beneath rocks, or burrow straight down into soft soil, to escape predators such as dogs, eagles and dingos.
Like the platypus, the male echidna has a hollow spur on its back leg. While a male platypus can use this spur to inject poision into would-be attackers, echidnas do not have this ability.