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What Is a Spiny Anteater?

By S. McCumber
Updated May 21, 2024
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The spiny anteater is the common name for the echidna, a mammal indigenous to New Guinea and Australia. The spiny anteater is similar to its distant cousins, the anteaters of North America, in that its diet consists largely of insects. Unlike other anteaters, the spiny anteater is a monotreme, which are mammals that lay eggs.

The echidna derives its name from Greek mythology. Echidna was a mythological monster that was half-human and half-snake. She was a rival of Greek gods and was considered the progenitor of many mythological monsters.

The spiny anteater gets its name from the hundreds of spines that cover its body, causing it to look similar to a hedgehog or porcupine. One of its distinguishing features is its long, slim snout, and there is a species called the short-beaked echidna that has a smaller snout. The snout houses an elongated, sticky tongue, which it uses to snare insects such as ants and termites. The snout serves as both mouth and nose, and it is toothless.

Echidnas are squat, powerfully built diggers with compact limbs and formidable claws. An echidna will dig into ant and termite mounds and logs in order to find its prey. Like its cousin, the platypus, it is aided by its ability to use its snout to sense electronic pulses from its prey. This type of electroreception is also common in sharks and eels.

The spiny anteater and platypus are the only known monetremes. An echidna lays eggs that remain inside the mother’s pouch, similar to a marsupial’s, for about 10 days. After the egg hatches, the baby spiny anteater remains inside the mother’s pouch for six to eight weeks. When the young echidna is old enough to leave the pouch, the mother prepares a den for it to remain in while she forages. It will return to the den to nurse the baby every few days.

A female monotreme does produce milk, but it lactates through openings in its skin and not through nipples as other mammals do. It has a pair of patches on its skin where the lactating milk seeps and can be accessed by the young echidnas. It is weaned at about seven months old and begins foraging on its own.

Based on fossil records found in Australia, it is believed that other species of monotremes have existed but are now extinct. Evidence suggests that monotremes arose in Australia and moved across Antarctica into what is now South America. As of 2011, it is believed that no monotremes naturally reside outside of Australia or New Guinea.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a spiny anteater?

A spiny anteater, also known as an echidna, is a unique mammal native to Australia and New Guinea. It's covered in sharp spines, has a specialized snout for feeding on ants and termites, and is one of the only mammals that lay eggs, belonging to the monotreme family, which also includes the platypus.

How does the spiny anteater reproduce?

Spiny anteaters are egg-laying mammals. The female lays a single leathery egg about 22 days after mating and deposits it directly into her pouch. The egg hatches after about 10 days, and the tiny, undeveloped young remains in the pouch for up to two months, feeding on milk secreted from the mother's mammary glands.

What do spiny anteaters eat and how do they find their food?

Spiny anteaters primarily feed on ants and termites. They use their long, sticky tongues to capture prey, which they locate using their acute sense of smell. Despite having no teeth, echidnas have spines on their tongues and the roof of their mouth to grind the insects before swallowing.

Are spiny anteaters endangered?

Spiny anteaters are not currently classified as endangered. However, their populations are affected by habitat loss, predation by introduced species, and climate change. Conservation efforts are important to ensure their survival, especially as they play a significant role in their ecosystems as a predator of ants and termites.

How do spiny anteaters protect themselves from predators?

When threatened, spiny anteaters use their sharp spines as a defense mechanism. They curl into a ball, exposing only their spines to potential predators. They can also dig themselves into the ground very quickly, leaving only their spines exposed above the surface, deterring animals like dingoes and birds of prey.

What is the lifespan of a spiny anteater and where do they live?

Spiny anteaters can live up to 50 years in the wild, a remarkable lifespan for a mammal of their size. They inhabit a variety of environments, from deserts to forests, and are well adapted to their habitats in Australia and New Guinea. They are solitary creatures, each having its own home range.

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