By Mark Robertson
MY FIRST echidna encounter for the season was in October – the Saturday of the Moto GP. I was enjoying a great coffee at the Hicksborough store, watching the motorbikes heading towards Phillip Island, when a lady stopped her car suddenly. An echidna had decided to cross the Bass Highway. Soon the traffic had halted, waiting for it to decide whether to wander across the busy road or attempt to burrow into the warm bitumen. A motorcyclist picked it up (leather gloves have more than one use) and deposited it on the "nature strip", and the traffic once more flowed.
It got me thinking about what a truly unusual species we share our environment with. For the next few months I was to observe its compatriots on an almost daily basis. Living at Cape Paterson, I saw them on vacant blocks and roadsides, pottering about looking for food in the form of ants and the occasional worm.
Echidnas belong to a group of mammal known as monotremes – the "missing link" between reptiles and mammals. Short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) and platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) are found only in Australia, and both in South Gippsland. Apart from several large echidna species found in Papua New Guinea, monotremes are found nowhere else on our planet.
An echidna puggle at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of University of Queensland and Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary.
They are egg-laying mammals, which suckle their single baby (known as a puggle) with milk from a special gland. "Proper" mammals (Eutherians) produce well-developed offspring, which are fed from breasts. Marsupials (metatherians) give birth to poorly-developed young, which develop in a pouch, attached to a teat. Monotremes lay eggs, which hatch, and the young then develop in a pouch, feeding on highly nutritious milk. Even the great whales have nipples to provide milk for their young – from the mammary glands – which give rise to the term "mammals".
After almost-daily sightings of echidnas over the summer, they have now disappeared. My last sighting was in early May. They are now concentrating on mating. Echidnas gather during the winter months, congregating into what is known as the "echidna train", where a receptive female is followed by up to ten males in a nose-to-tail formation, with the smallest at the rear, with each male waiting for their chance to copulate (not unlike scenes at the local pub!). Given the prodigious coating of needle-sharp spines (modified hairs, another uniquely mammalian trait) coating each individual, the machinations of mating must be an extremely sado-masochistic experience. Not having seen them in "flagrante delicto" I can only guess that this is an extremely delicate process. Add in a four-headed penis, and the mind boggles!
It must work out well as the echidna has been around for 20-50 million years, and is regarded as a common species (although monotremes should be regarded as anything but "common").
So keep your eyes peeled for the echidna train and, if you spot one, spare a thought for just how unique this "common" species is and rejoice that they share our special Bass Coast home.
For a cultural reference, look up Frank Zappa's musical piece Echidna’s Arf, on his 1974 record Roxy and Everywhere. If you don't know what a record is, ask someone over 40.