What small, spiky creature restores landscapes through ecosystem engineering?
Echidnas are native to Australia, a nation with plenty of semi-arid landscapes due to centuries of extractive and destructive agricultural practices. Thankfully, Australians have a soil superhero in their midst that can turn this legacy around. Echidnas love to dig (and dig some more) in their search for delicious foods: ants, termites, worms, and insect larvae. They can eat about 40,000 critters a day!
All that digging leads to plenty of holes, paving a path for seeds and leaves to get buried into the soil where they can interact with the microorganisms and nutrients there. Soil invertebrates get in contact with plant material, then use their decomposing powers to promote plant growth and the exchange of carbon and nitrogen. An added bonus: that carbon no longer gets released into the atmosphere.
By creating conditions perfect for soil regeneration, echidnas are boosting carbon drawdown efforts and, as a result, helping mitigate climate change.
Is there anything echidnas can’t do?!
A Sticky Business
Echidnas do all of their planet-restoring, soil-regenerating, and plant-producing all-in-a-day’s work without… teeth? Yup, the secret lies in their thin, sticky 7-inch long tongue. Rather than munching on food, echidnas grind their meals using hard pads on the roof of their mouths and the base of their tongues to create a digestible paste. Their tongues, combined with their rubbery, powerful beaks, allow them to tear open termite mounds and dig holes even in the hardest of dirt.
Despite their small size, echidnas have strong claws, but these are strictly meant for getting underground. When echidnas feel threatened, they either hide in a dirt pit of their own making, run away, or curl up into a ball, showing off their 2-inch long spikes. These methods do provide a decent amount of protection against natural predators, but it’s no match for introduced species such as foxes or house cats.
How can we protect these important creatures?
As slow-moving, small creatures, echidnas are vulnerable to large vehicles driving fast on roads. Wildlife corridors are one way to ensure the safety of animals attempting to cross busy streets. Examples include tunnels or bridges connecting one end of the road to another. Vegetation corridors, using shrubs and other plant life, can also be used to connect wilderness areas so creatures can avoid streets altogether.
Although echidnas enjoy spending time underground, they sleep above ground. Echidnas find shelter in fallen trees with hollow logs, so any efforts to remove timber lead to habitat loss. Letting trees decompose as Nature intended is one way to prevent this from happening.
To learn more interesting facts about these amazing creatures, such as how they lack a stomach or lay eggs, watch this video:
For all soil heroes,
Tania graduated from Tufts University with a Master of Science in Animals and Public Policy. Her academic research projects focused on wildlife conservation efforts, and the impacts that human activities have on wild habitats. As a writer and activist, Tania emphasizes the connections between planet, human, and animal health. She loves hiking, snorkeling, and advocating for social justice.