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VOICES FOR THE EARTH – Researching Remarkable Echidnas

Echidnas are truly remarkable creatures. They are remarkable as one of only two egg-laying mammals (monotremes) in the world. But they have many other remarkable features including backwards pointing hind feet for digging and limbs held out to the side like lizards.

“Ultimate survivor”, an article in the November-December Australian Geographic, outlines other remarkable echidna attributes and details research which is revealing more about this enigmatic species.

Found in northern wet rainforests as well as the arid interior and the mountain uplands of the south-east, the short-beaked echidna is Australia’s most widespread mammal, with the species having been in existence from the time of the dinosaurs.

Researchers Dr Peggy Rismiller and Associate Professor Stuart Nichol (University of Tasmania) have studied echidnas on Kangaroo Island and Tasmania for 30 years.  

Dr Rismiller said that although the severe fires last December and January burnt half of Kangaroo Island killing some echidnas, others survived.  She said adults dig in and move earth between their spines for insulation.  If they do not dig deeply enough, their spines may be melted but they may still survive.

Studying echidnas is very difficult as they are so elusive.  Rismiller says finding them is basically being in the right place at the right time.  She and other scientists have found using volunteers or citizen scientists has substantially improved their research efforts.

In 2017 Tahlia Perry, a PhD student at Adelaide University and her supervisor, Professor Frank Grutzner, developed the Echidna Conservation Science Initiative (Echidna CSI) in order to collect more data about echidnas.  Volunteers were able to upload sightings and photos to a citizen science app as well as collecting  and mailing in echidna scats which are analysed and used to build a database of DNA from various regions and provide information on echidna diet.

The Initiative has been very successful in the three years since it was established. More than 10,000 sightings have been uploaded and at least 400 scat samples mailed in.

Projects such of these are likely to provide more insights into these fascinating animals.

Leonie Blain