Echidna mating season means more opportunity to spot one, but it also means more animals hospitalised

Echidna mating season means more opportunity to spot one, but it also means more animals hospitalised
  • PublishedSeptember 20, 2023

They’re small, spiky and spread across the country — echidnas are one of Australia’s most iconic animals yet surprisingly little is known about this elusive species.

Something researchers do have a firm grasp on is when the egg-laying mammals go out in search of a mate — or mates — and how often that gets them into trouble with humans.

The Currumbin Wildlife Hospital on the Gold Coast said about 30 echidnas were admitted during the June to September mating season each year.

“The great majority of these are because of trauma,” chief vet Michael Pyne said.

“It’s because they’re crossing roads and being hit by cars, it’s because they’re going through backyards and being taken out by pet dogs.

“Outside of the mating season we still see echidnas come through but it’s far, far less [frequent].”

University of Adelaide professor Frank Grutzner leads a project called Echidna CSI, researching the species through citizen science.

He said the breeding season was when echidnas were most active, and therefore most likely to be injured.

“Feral cats and roads are the main threats to echidnas, but there are also problems with habitat destruction,” Professor Grutzner said.

Glittery poo in the post

Established in 2017, the Echidna CSI project has more than 13,000 echidna sightings registered from citizen scientists.

“These are often in areas where official sightings haven’t been recorded,” Professor Grutzner said.

“It’s the largest number of echidna sightings of any individual project … so it’s been extremely successful.”

A close up photo of an Echidna.
Experts advise leaving a couple of metres’ distance when coming across an echidna.(ABC Open contributor: Richie Southerton)

As well as recording echidna sightings, the project has asked participants to collect echidna scat and send it to researchers in the post.

It’s a task that’s potentially prettier than it sounds.

“Echidna poo isn’t really disgusting, it’s almost like a drilled core of a bit of soil, this sort of cylindrical-shaped sausage of soil,” Professor Grutzner said.

“Sometimes we actually see a little bit of glitter in the poo [which is] the invertebrates they’ve consumed, and their exoskeletons scattered around the sample.”

He said more than 800 poo samples had been submitted to Echidna CSI, enabling new research not previously possible.

“We’ve conducted the first study of the gut bacteria which is really important to understand their biology [and] we’ve done some preliminary work looking at their diet.

“As a scientist you couldn’t do this — you couldn’t start going out and collect samples or even look for echidnas on a continental scale, it would just be totally impossible.”

Echidnas are everywhere, but how many are there?

The Atlas of Living Australia has nearly 73,000 records of echidnas spread almost all the way across the continent.

Some of those records include sightings, datasets from researchers and state and territory environment departments, and museum entries dating back to the 1960s, but the bulk – more than 50,000 of them – have been collected since 2010.

A front-on photograph of an echidna.
The Atlas of Living Australia collects public, government and researchers’ records.(Supplied: John Sear, published on the Atlas of Living Australia)

Hamish McCallum from Griffith University said compared to the platypus – the world’s only other egg-laying mammal – echidnas were the far more widespread species.

“They’re in the suburbs, they’re in the deserts, they’re in the snow — their distribution is the map of Australia,” Professor McCallum said.

“Trying to devise a mechanism to actually work out how many there are is surprisingly difficult, so nobody really knows how many there are.

“And nobody knows with any confidence whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing.”

Professor McCallum said such a fascinating animal, one that in evolutionary biology terms seemed to have been caught between being a reptile and a true mammal, deserved more research and more care from humans, especially around breeding season.

“They are such an important species, they’re so iconic and so unique that we need to be very careful of them,” he said.

Help! I’ve hit an echidna

If you are unlucky enough to injure an echidna or find one injured then getting it to your local wildlife rescue organisation or the nearest vet will give the animal its best chance of survival.

Dr Pyne said a thick towel or heavy blanket in the back of the car was an important tool for a roadside rescue.

“You can scoop up most animals and wrap them up in that and then be able to safely restrain them in that,” he said.

“They’re great little escape artists and can wedge themselves under car seats and things like that so if you do rescue one keep it on your lap or keep it nearby.”

Dr Pyne said during mating season and in the following months it was important to check any injured or deceased echidna for a pouch and a potential puggle.

A baby echidna's face emerges from a pouch.
Echidna puggles emerge from an egg, then spend weeks inside their mother’s pouch.(Supplied: Alice Springs Desert Park)

“It’s very easy to roll them over on their back and have a look,” he said.

“When they’re in the pouch they’re literally going to be like a little pink blob and the pouch, when relaxed, opens right up so it will be very obvious.”


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