The Echidna Is One of the World's Strangest Mammals

echidna
The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is one of four living species of echidna. Dave WATTS/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

While the echidna (pronounced ih-KID-na) is considered a mammal — because it’s warm-blooded, has hair on its body and produces milk for its young — this large hedgehog-like creature is in a class of its own. In fact, the echidna is so different from any other mammal, it puzzles researchers and scientists to this day, according to Rick Schwartz, San Diego Zoo Global Ambassador.

“What really sets the echidna apart from other mammals is it is one of only two egg-laying mammals; the other is the duckbill platypus,” says Schwartz in an email interview. “Echidnas are an egg-laying mammal called monotremes. There are only five monotremes in the world: four echidna species, and one platypus species.”

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The echidna also has its own distinct look. “Echidnas are monotremes, while hedgehogs are erinaceids and porcupines are rodents,” adds Schwartz. “While the echidna is sometimes called the spiny anteater, they aren’t even closely related to anteaters.”

So, what exactly do these animals look like? To begin, they have a tiny face, with small eyes, and long or short noses (sometimes called beaks). Their body is quite stocky, measuring from 14 to 30 inches (35 to 76 centimeters) long and weighing from 5 to 22 pounds (2 to 10 kilograms). “The body of a short-beaked echidna has dark fur almost completely hidden by a covering of hollow, barbless quills, called spines, on its back and sides,” says Schwartz, “while long-beaked echidnas have little fur and more visible spines. The beige-and-black spines on all echidna species are about 2 inches (5 centimeters) long and help camouflage the echidna in the brush. They have very short legs, ideal for digging.”

Found throughout Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, from the highlands to the deserts to the forests, the short-beaked echidna is one of Australia’s most widely distributed mammals. Here are 12 fun facts about this unusual critter.

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