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Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) Fact Sheet: Diet & Feeding

Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

Diet

Echidnas are opportunistic feeders

  • Echidnas are classified as a myrmecophage (animals, like anteaters, that feed primarily on ants) (Nicol 2015a)
  • Preferred foods (Nicol 2015b; Nicol 2015a)
    • Prefer concentrated prey, particularly social insects
    • Termites
      • Make up the majority of their diet, where available
      • Less exoskeleton compared to ants; live in larger colonies
    • Ants
  • Other prey
    • Soil invertebrates, such as scarab beetle larvae (“pasture grubs”) (Smith et al. 1989; Nicol 2015a)
      • When seasonally available, make up a large portion of the diet of Tasmanian echidnas (Sprent and Nicol 2016)
    • Moth larvae (“grass grubs”) (Sprent and Nicol 2016)

Defense mechanisms of prey

  • Echidnas avoid termites and ants that bite, sting, or have other chemical defenses (Van Wilgenburg and Elgar 2007; Nicol 2015a, except as noted)
    • Seek out defenseless parts of the colony: queen, larvae, and pupae; also winged ants
    • May be willing to endure bites of meat ants, especially after hibernation and before rearing young (Augee et al. 2006)

Feeding

Tongue and jaw

  • The echidna’s sticky tongue can be extended up to 18 cm (7 in) and more than 100 times per minute (Nicol 2015a)
    • Their genus name, Tachyglossus, means ‘fast tongue’ (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Circular and longitudinal muscles cause the extension and contraction (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Tongue tip is very flexible; can form a U-shape (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Taste buds located at the back of the tongue (Augee et al. 2006)
  • Prey size is limited to the size of their mouth opening, about 5 mm (0.2 in) (Augee et al. 2006; Nicol 2015a)
    • Hold larger items down with front feet and tear them into smaller pieces with the tongue (Nicol 2015a)
    • Crush larger prey inside a foraging hole with the snout, then suck out the soft parts
  • With no teeth, echidnas rely on their tongue to help grind their food
    • Keratin spines at base of the tongue grind food against the palate (Nicol 2015a)
    • Grinding actions forms a paste (Augee et al. 2006)

Finding prey

  • How an echidna finds food is not well understood; smell, vibration, and touch likely all play a role (Augee et al. 2006)
  • Unearthing underground prey
    • An echidna uses its front claws to tear apart subterranean nests and mounds (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Probes and test soil and sand with snout, leaving round holes (Nicol 2015a)
      • Reported to move snout in a corkscrew-like motion to extract prey, such as beetle larvae (Smith et al. 1989)
    • Pushes head deep into the ground, using snout to displace the soil (Nicol 2015a)
  • Foraging around trees (Nicol 2015a)
    • Probes snout under loose tree bark
    • Extracts prey from rotting logs by pulling logs apart with claws and probing with snout
  • Turning over leaf litter (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Exposes insects below

Seasonal changes in feeding

  • Feed heavily after the mating season to build up fat reserves (Nicol 2015a)
  • In temperate areas, peaks in feeding occur in late spring (Smith et al. 1989)

Drinking

  • In the wild, may occasionally drink from pools (Augee et al. 2006)
  • Able to live in areas where drinking water is not available (Augee et al. 2006)
    • May drink dew

Digestion and scat

  • Food is digested slowly (Augee et al. 2006)
  • Stomach is elastic; can hold many, many insects
  • Stomach has tough, textured lining; grinds insect and dirt particles together to effectively break down food
  • Scat is smooth and cylindrical, with broken ends (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Contains indigestible insect exoskeletons, soil, and sand
    • Echidna scat is hard to locate, even where echidnas are abundant

A Slender, Sticky Trap

Echidna climbs on log with long tongue extruded

A short-beaked echidna can extrude its long, sticky tongue more than 100 times per minute!

Part of the short-beaked echidna's scientific name means "fast tongue" in Greek.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

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