Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Echidnas ought not cross the roads in Spring.

Graphic photo warning. This post shows images of a fresh road-killed Echidna.

These poor little guys cross roads in Spring, seeking a mate, and as they are terribly slow walkers, they are at serious risk of having this happen to them. Mind you, I get cross every time I see this kind of road kill, because it really is a comment on an unobservant or careless driver.

Technically, it is called the "Short-beaked Echidna" (Tachyglossus aculeatus). There is only a single species of Echidna in Australia, but apparently, three species of long-beaked Echidnas live in Papua New Guinea. They are classed within a different genus.

In general I do not photograph "road-kills". Some people find them "unseemly", and sometimes, they are not "nice" (up close and personal). Today I saw a dead Echidna on a road which I had driven down two hours before, and it was not there when I first went down the road. So I knew this Echidna was freshly killed. This is important, as dead Echidnas get very smelly, very quickly, if lying on a hot road. I speak from experience.

Anyway, my real reason for taking (and showing) these photos is for scientific interest value. I have previously posted photos of live Echidnas. But a dead specimen allows some shots which the live ones are not happy to pose for. So it is a rare opportunity to examine some aspects of the structure of an Echidna.

This particular Echidna has now been respectfully buried, and covered with a heavy metal cage, hopefully to prevent dogs or foxes from interfering with it.

Here is the dead Echidna, placed on its back. It has no evident pouch, so I assume this one is a male, but as they are "monotremes", they do not have the visible (external) apparatus which we tend to regard as normal. Female Echidnas do suckle their young, but apparently they have no "nipples" as such, but "milk patches" from which they young lap the extruded milk. I wondered about the two seemingly bald patches - on either side of the abdomen. However, females do have a form of pouch which they use while the young (called "Puggles") are sheltered for several months, while they are small, and before they become too spiky. As I say, there is no pouch structure evident on the abdomen of this Echidna.
Here is the left front foot (the upper side). These short legs and thick nails are very powerful, and they do the bulk of the digging work. The rear legs do the flicking out of the loosened soil - hence the long nails, acting like shovels.The rear legs do the flicking out of the loosened soil - so I figured that would explain the long nails, acting like long-handled shovels. However, the websites say that the very long nails are used for grooming between the long spines. What appears to be a "thumb" is clearly visible in this image. It is reduced to a stump.
Apparently, Echidnas do have a "heel spur", (as do Platypuses), but they are blunt and non-venomous. From this link to an excellent WIRES site, you can see that the spur on an Echidna is well back on the heel, and it does not develop to protrude. Allow the WIRES site time to download images, and you will see stunning pictures of Echidnas, including babies, rescued by WIRES (Platypuses also).

I have never before seen this - the tongue by which the Echidna collects termites, which are its favourite food. In the Southern Highlands, on often finds termite mounds broken into by Echidnas. This shows the underside of the snout. Echidnas have a toothless jaw, and a very small mouth. They rely on catching ants and termites with the sticky tongue, and drawing them back into the mouth. The camera lens cap is there for scale. It is 64 mm in diameter (2 1/2 inches) A photo of an Echidna skull is visible on the Museum of Victoria website. It looks strangely bird-like in its structure.

Here is the snout, as seen from above, with the tongue still protruding.


Mosura said...

Always a sad thing to see but an interesting opportunity for studying the anatomy.

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Mosura.
Yes, that sums up my feelings.

I have just posted a link to a really good WIRES site, which has very good photos of rescued Echidnas, and some hand-raised babies. A really good chance to see them.


Gouldiae said...

G'day Denis,
Yes, I agree with Mosura - a sad event, but a great opportunity. Despite their slow speed, they can be a challenge to photograph. I chased one here for some time once, waiting for it to pause in a suitable position. All it did was burrow in whenever I got too close for it. I've got some lovely images of details of the spines.

Duncan said...

Denis, many times I've pulled up and slowed traffic down to let an echidna get across the road safely. No excuse to hit these animals.

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Gouldiae and Duncan. Fellow travellers, all of us, it seems.
I once stood in the middle of the road to shepherd an Echidna across the road, in the face of oncoming traffic.
People responded well - as it gave them a chance to see a live Echidna, which they would probably not have noticed, otherwise.
It is the lack of observation by drivers which causes these guys to get squashed.
Thanks for the comments, and for having stood up for your local Echidnas.

Boobook said...

Hi Denis
We couldn't avoid hitting an echidna in the Grampians one night, drove home, parked the car. Next morning two tyres on one side were flat. We had to laugh at the note on the receipt given to us by the tyre mechanic after he'd restored the tyres - "Hit porkypine".

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Boobook.
What can I say? - The Echidna's revenge?
Liked your Porkypine story, though.
You probably thought I was guilt-tripping you, but I acknowledge that sometimes one cannot see them, or avoid them. It is just that I live in a Wombat area, and I see so many dead ones beside the roads here. Some people refuse to slow down, or avoid them. The locals regard them as "vermin". But at least Wombats are nocturnal, and also are reputed to walk into the path of cars.
But Echidnas seem to be quite active in the day time, which should make them easier to see, and to avoid. Your story of hitting one at night sheds a different light on my opinion.
Thanks for your comment.

Billie Hughes said...

Both the male and females have a pouch, which Dr Peggy Rismiller describes as:
"The pouch of an echidna is different than a kangaroo pouch. It is formed by pulling two longitudinal muscles on either side of the stomach together. Both males and females can form a pouch. When the mother has a young, the pouch is fleshier because she is lactating."