Skip to main content
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Introduction to the egg-laying mammal

(Augee et al. 2006)

  • The only living egg-laying mammals (“monotremes”) are the short-beaked echidna, the three species of long-beaked echidnas, and the platypus
  • Similarities to other mammals (i.e., marsupials and placental mammals)
    • Fur
    • Produce milk to nourish their young
    • Produce body heat and regulate their body temperature
  • Differences from other mammals
    • Lay eggs; young are hatched, not “born”
    • Bodies are stocky, with no discernible neck
    • Limbs are held horizontal to body
    • Snout has mechanoreceptors and electroreceptors
    • No teeth; have mouth pads made of keratin
    • Snout formed by elongated nasal bones and jaw bones
    • Little development of an outer ear (“pinna”)
    • Hindfeet rotate outwards
    • Mothers lack nipples
    • Spur on ankle connects to a gland near the knee
      • Presence/absence depends on sex and age in echidnas
    • Differences in skeletal structure

Taxonomy

  • The short-beaked echidna is the only member of the genus Tachyglossus (Nicol 2015a)
  • Five subspecies of Tachyglossus aculeatus are recognized (Nicol 2015b)

Nomenclature

(Augee et al. 2006)

  • Genus: Tachyglossus
    • From the Greek tachy (rapid) and gloss for (tongue)
  • Species: aculeatus
    • From the Latin aculeus (point, sting)
    • Refers to echidnas’ spiny appearance
  • Common name: echidna (short-beaked echidna)
    • Refers to the Greek goddess Ekhidna, who was half reptile (snake) and half mammal (woman); scientists recognized early on that echidnas have a mixture of reptile- and mammal-like traits
    • In the early 1800s, echidnas were assigned to the genus Echidna
      • The genus Echidna had previously been assigned to a type of eel, so echidnas were reassigned to the genus Tachyglossus in 1811
  • Monotremata (Courtney 1993)
    • From the Greek mono (alone, single) and trema (hole)
    • Refers to the single cloaca (vent opening) that is used for both reproduction and excretion

Synonyms

  • Genus synonyms: Myrmecophaga, Echidna, Acanthonotus, Echinopus, Syphomia (Jackson and Groves 2015)
  • Myrmecophaga aculeata (Shaw, 1792) (Augee et al. 2006; Nicol 2015b)

Common names

(Nicol 2015b)

  • Australian echidna, short-beaked echidna, short-nosed echidna, spiny anteater, bristly echidna (T. setosus), Kangaroo Island echidna (T. multiaculeatus) (English)
  • Échidné à nez court (French)
  • Ameisenigel (German)
  • Equidna de hocico corto (Spanish)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Names used by Aboriginal peoples in Australia
    • Enarlanga (Northern Territory) (Nicol 2015a)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Monotremes (egg-laying mammals) were once a more diverse group (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Today, only four echidna species and one platypus species remain
    • Falsely labeled ‘primitive’ by early scientists; monotremes are highly specialized and successful in their ecological, reproductive, and life history niches (see Augee et al. 2016: p. 23)
    • Echidnas independently evolved skeletal adaptations similar to other ant-eating mammals (Augee et al. 2006)
  • Egg-laying mammals and live-bearing mammals diverged ~165-175 mya, during the Jurassic (Belkov et al. 2002; Bininda-Emonds et al. 2007; Nicol 2015a)
  • Earliest monotreme, Teinolophos trusleri, emerged 130 mya (Nicol 2015a; Thomas H. Rich, personal communication, 2018)
  • Only the lineage containing the echidnas and platypuses survived the Australian ‘marsupial invasion’ of the Eocene to early Cretaceous (Phillips et al. 2009; Thomas H. Rich, personal communication, 2018)
  • Divergence between echidnas and platypuses is difficult to estimate (Phillips et al. 2009; Nicol 2015a); large gap in the fossil record (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Likely more than 115 mya (early Cretaceous), although some authors suggest earlier (20-50 mya; mid-Tertiary) (Phillips et al. 2009)
    • Platypuses thought to be older than echidnas (Augee et al. 2006; Phillips et al. 2009)
  • Earliest ancestor of the echidnas is unknown; likely a terrestrial insectivore with reduced dentition (Nicol 2015a); Phillips et al. (2009) suggest a terrestrial, platypus-like ancestor
  • Limited fossil record for echidnas (Nicol 2015a)
  • Short-beaked echidnas originated during the Pleistocene (Augee et al. 2006; Nicol 2015a)
  • Short-beaked echidnas benefited from continent-wide drying during the late Pleistocene (Nicol 2015a)
    • As a predator of insect larvae, long-beaked echidnas did not adapt well to this drying—disappeared from mainland Australia and Tasmania

Closest known extant relatives

  • Long-beaked echidna species (Nicol 2015a)
  • Platypus (Nicol 2015a)

Cultural History

History

  • 1792: first written description of an echidna
  • Described by Captain Bligh in the ship’s log of the Providence, which stopped at Tasmania on its way to Tahiti (SC Nicol, personal communication, 2017)
  • Scientific interest in echidnas began shortly after European settlement of Australia, when Western scientists learned of the echidna’s existence (Augee et al. 2006)
  • Key scientific insights:
    • 1792: First described in a scientific report by George Shaw
    • 1802: British anatomist Everard Home recognized the relationship between echidnas and the platypus (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Mid-1880s: Scientists learned that echidnas are egg-laying mammals (e.g., Caldwell 1887) (Rismiller and McKelvey 2009)
    • 1895: thought to be the first scientific observations of echidnas mating in the wild (Augee et al. 2006)
    • Griffiths (1978) was the first to describe some reproductive behaviors of wild echidnas (Rismiller and McKelvey 2009)
    • Rismiller and Seymour (1991) described courtship and mating in the wild for the first time (Rismiller and McKelvey 2009)
    • 1992: Short-beaked echidna became the first mammal in which both torpor and hibernation were described (Grigg et al. 2004)

Culture and folklore

  • Short- and long-beaked echidnas are important in the traditional cultures of Australia and Papua New Guinea (Nicol 2015a)
  • Popular culture in Australia
  • Aboriginal peoples of Australia
    • Short-beaked echidnas common in diet, especially in winter, but not likely a major food source (Nicol 2015a)
    • Aboriginal art (Nicol 2015a)
    • Echidnas were included in Dreamtime stories and animistic culture (Nicol 2015a)
    • Some tribes used echidnas as totems (Nicol 2015a)
    • Use of body parts
      • Spines for necklaces (Nicol 2015a)
  • Aboriginal peoples of Papua New Guinea (long-beaked echidna)
    • Echidnas highly valued (Nicol 2015a)
    • Echidna meat valued more than other game; used in some tribal ceremonies, such as peace and “bride-price” ceremonies (Nicol 2015a)
    • The long-beaked echidna, due to its secretive behavior, is considered to provide a person with magical powers of stealth (Nicol 2015a)
    • Use of echidna body parts
      • Snouts for arrowheads (Nicol 2015a)
      • Spines for sewing and weaving (Nicol 2015a)

Books

  • Selected non-fiction
    • Echidna: Extraordinary Egg-laying Mammal – Michael Augee, Brett Gooden, and Anne Musser (2006)
      • Updated book based on Augee and Gooden’s Echidnas of Australia and New Guinea (1993)
    • The Echidna: Australia’s Enigma – Peggy Rismiller (1999)
      • Engaging combination of images and information; written by a pioneering echidna biologist
    • Echidnas – Mervyn Griffiths (1968)
  • Children’s books
    • Numerous titles have been published; search online for “echidna” or “puggle”; also look for titles based on Australian legends
      • Puggle – Catricona Hoy and Andrew Plant (2009)
        • Follows the development of an orphaned echidna, who is taken to a rescue center after his mother is hit by a car
      • Tachy the Echidna – Pauline Reilly (2003)
      • The Echidna and the Shade Tree: An Aboriginal Story – Mona Green and Pamela Lofts (1984)

Poetry

Television and film

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia (Linnaeus, 1758) - mammals

Order: Monotremata (Bonaparte, 1837) - monotremes (egg-laying mammals)

Family: Tachyglossidae (Gill, 1872) - echidnas, spiny anteaters

Genus: Tachyglossus (Illiger, 1811)

Species: Tachyglossus aculeatus (Shaw, 1792) - short-beaked echidna

Subspecies: Tachyglossus aculeatus acanthion (Collett, 1884)
Subspecies: Tachyglossus aculeatus aculeatus (Shaw, 1792)
Subspecies: Tachyglossus aculeatus lawesii (Ramsay, 1877)
Subspecies: Tachyglossus aculeatus multiaculeatus (W. Rothschild, 1905)
Subspecies: Tachyglossus aculeatus setosus (É. Geoffroy, 1803)

Sources: Jackson and Groves (2015); Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017)

Echidna Admiration

John Gould 1863 illustration of two short-beaked echidnas

An 1863 illustration of two short-beaked echidnas by John Gould.

Gould depicts two important echidna behaviors — rolling into a ball shape for defense (left) and use of a long, sticky tongue for feeding (right) — as well as key physical characteristics of echidnas.

"Echidna sesota, hairy echidna"; Plate 3 in John Gould's The Mammals of Australia (1863).

Image credit: Made available by Biodiversity Heritage Library (contributed to BHL by Smithsonian Libraries). Public domain.

Spiny-anteaters in School

Histoical drawing of short-beaked echidna

An illustration of a short-beaked echidna, from a school textbook, 1900.

"Echidna aculeata, the spiny ant-eater"; p. 341 in Charles' and Gertrude Davenport's Introduction to zoology; a guide to the study of animals, for the use of secondary schools (1900).

Image credit: Made available by Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr. No known copyright restrictions.

SDZG Library Links