- Echidna captive breeding partnership between the University of Queensland and Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Australia has produced 14 short-beaked echidna puggles (or babies) in the last five years.
- This is by far the most successful captive breeding program for echidnas, scientists say.
- Increased understanding of the short-beaked echidna reproduction can help save their critically endangered cousins, the long-beaked echidnas, scientists add.
There’s an echidna baby boom in Australia. In the last five years, an echidna captive breeding partnership between the University of Queensland and Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Australia has produced 14 cute short-beaked echidna puggles (or babies).
“This is by far the most successful captive breeding program for echidnas,” Michael Pyne, general manager of life sciences and senior veterinarian at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, told Mongabay.
Echidna, also called the spiny anteater, is one of the most primitive mammals on earth. It is also one of the only two living mammals that lays eggs, the other being the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).
For a long time, scientists have had a limited understanding of echidna reproduction and biology. So getting them to breed in captivity has been difficult.
According to Pyne, other zoos have bred short-beaked echidnas in the past, but the successes were mostly accidental, and not reliable. “But we’ve been researching echidna reproduction for 15 years now, and we’ve really cracked the secret of breeding them successfully and consistently,” he said.
The short-beaked echidna is one of the only four living species of echidnas in the world. It is also the only echidna species that is currently not considered to be threatened by extinction.
Its remaining three cousins — the long-beaked echidnas found in New Guinea — are all critically endangered. These include the Western long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijnii), Eastern long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bartoni), and Attenborough’s Echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi). In fact, Attenborough’s echidna is known only from a single specimen collected in 1961.
So increased understanding of the short-beaked echidna reproduction, and getting them to reproduce consistently in captivity could help save the long-beaked echidnas.
The fundamentals of reproductive biology is likely to be the same for the short and long-beaked echidnas, Stephen Johnston, Associate Professor and reproductive zoologist at the University of Queensland, told Mongabay. “But their husbandry is slightly different: for example, they both lay eggs into their pouch but they have different dietary requirements,” he added.
At the moment, the long-beaked echidnas are not being bred in captivity anywhere, Pyne said, and getting access to these animals remains a challenge.
“We would need to do this in collaboration with partners in Papua New Guinea — perhaps the Port Moresby Nature Park, for example. I suspect their different diet (worms rather than termites) could also be a challenge,” Johnston added.
But the team is confident that the skills developed for short-beaked echidna breeding can be applied to the long-beaked echidnas. “There’s a lot to achieve and a lot of funding that we have to find to be able to make it all happen,” Pyne said. “But I guess we’ve been so successful with the short beaked echidna that we want to help the long beaked echidna. We know we can help them.”