1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Echidna

ECHIDNA, or Porcupine Ant-Eater (Echidna aculeata), one of the few species of Monotremata, the lowest subclass of Mammalia, forming the family Echidnidae. It is a native of Australia, where it chiefly abounds in New South Wales, inhabiting rocky and mountainous districts, where it burrows among the loose sand, or hides itself in crevices of rocks. In size and appearance it bears a considerable resemblance to the hedgehog, its upper surface being covered over with strong spines directed backwards, and on the back inwards, so as to cross each other on the middle line. The spines in the neighbourhood of the tail form a tuft sufficient to hide that almost rudimentary organ. The head is produced into a long tubular snout, covered with skin for the greater part of its length. The opening of the mouth is small, and from it the echidna puts forth its long slender tongue, lubricated with a viscous secretion, by means of which it seizes the ants and other insects on which it feeds. It has no teeth. Its legs are short and strong, and form, with its broad feet and large solid nails, powerful burrowing organs. In common with the other monotremes, the male echidna has its heel provided with a sharp hollow spur, connected with a secreting gland, and with muscles capable of pressing the secretion from the gland into the spur. It is a nocturnal or crepuscular animal, generally sleeping during the day, but showing considerable activity by night. When attacked it seeks to escape either by rolling itself into a ball, its erect spines proving a formidable barrier to its capture, or by burrowing into the sand, which its powerful limbs enable it to do with great celerity. “The only mode of carrying the creature,” writes G. Bennett (Gatherings of a Naturalist in Australasia), “is by one of the hind legs; its powerful resistance and the sharpness of the spines will soon oblige the captor, attempting to seize it by any other part of the body, to relinquish his hold.” In a younger stage of their development, however, the young are carried in a temporary abdominal pouch, to which they are transferred after hatching, and into which open the mammary glands. The echidnas are exceedingly restless in confinement, and constantly endeavour by burrowing to effect their escape. From the quantity of sand and mud always found in the alimentary canal of these animals, it is supposed that these ingredients must be necessary to the proper digestion of their insect food.

There are two varieties of this species, the Port Moresby echidna and the hairy echidna. The last-mentioned is found in south-eastern New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania. In all the spines are mixed with hair; in the Tasmanian race they are nearly hidden by the long harsh fur. Of the three-clawed echidnas (Proechidna) confined to New Guinea there are two species, Bruijn’s echidna (P. bruijnii), discovered in 1877 in the mountains on the north-east coast at an elevation of 3500 ft., and the black-spined echidna (P. nigroaculeata) of larger size—the type specimen measuring 31 in., as against 24 in.—with shorter claws.