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Echidnas Have a Nose for Ecological Engineering

Echidnas move in the wild at an average speed of 1.3 km/h

Echidnas move in the wild at an average speed of 1.3 km/h, with a maximum speed of only 2.3 km/h.

By Christine Cooper

Activity loggers have revealed that echidnas turn over 200 cubic metres of soil each year, making them one of Australia’s most important remaining ecosystem engineers.

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To meet their energy and water needs, short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) dig to find around 40,000 ants and termites daily. In the process they turn over, or bioturbate, large amounts of soil.

New, custom-built miniature activity loggers have enabled us to show that a single echidna can move about 200 cubic metres of soil per year; this is the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool for every 12 echidnas. Echidnas are therefore important bioturbators; they break up and loosen the soil, improve water penetration, reduce run-off and erosion, and incorporate organic matter into the soil profile.

Since many of Australia’s other digging mammals – such as bettongs, potoroos, bilbies and other bandicoots – have suffered dramatic declines in their distribution and abundance since European settlement, the widespread echidna is vital to maintaining ecosystem health throughout Australia. However, warmer temperatures associated with human-induced climate change might impact on the extent of their important ecosystem function.

Echidnas are remarkable mammals. They are monotremes, which means they lay eggs like reptiles but have hair and feed their young on milk like other mammals.

Marsupial and placental mammals diverged from monotremes 170 million years ago, so monotremes represent an ancient lineage of great general interest to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.