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Echidnas’ Nifty Bushfire Survival Tactic May Not Be Enough

The ‘hide and hibernate’ instinct is known to save echidnas from bushfire; however, experts fear the current fires may be too extreme even for them to hide from.

“Echidnas have a distinct defence mechanism,” Brett Finlayson, a Senior Keeper at Taronga Zoo, told 10 daily.

“Once they feel threatened, they tend to bury or shimmy themselves deep down into the ground. They do this by ramming their feet into the ground.

“If a fire sweeps through and an echidna’s quills are exposed and burnt, the echidna should be able to recover as long as the skin hasn’t been burnt.”

An echidna with melted spines. Photo: @EchidnaCSI

Curiosity was spiked after an image was shared on Twitter of an echidna with stubby, burnt spines from an area near where a controlled burn was occurring.

“Echidna quills are made out of keratin, the same material as our fingernails, therefore echidnas' quills grow out to ensure they remain sharp,” Finlayson explained when asked if the quills would regrow.

However, it’s not just hiding that has saved this ‘living fossil’ from bushfire over the years.

A research article published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal revealed echidnas can go into a similar state to hibernation.

“For weeks after the fire, all individuals remained in their original territories and compensated for changes in their habitat with a decrease in mean body temperature and activity,” the researchers wrote of their study.

An echidna burrows itself on Kangaroo Island. Photo: John White Photos via Getty

Echidnas are ‘heterothermic’, meaning they can regulate their own body temperature or switch into a state where it’s controlled by its surroundings.

“Our data suggest that heterothermy enables mammals to outlast the conditions during and after a fire by reducing energy expenditure, permitting periods of extended inactivity.”

Although this carefully evolved survival method may not be enough in current climates, according to Echidna CSI, a conservation science initiative.

“As bushfires devastate much of Kangaroo Island, we worry about the loss of echidna numbers,” the Initiative shared on its Twitter account.

Echidnas on KI are already listed as endangered and although they can survive fires by digging underground, these fires may be too intense to hide from.

The Australian and New Zealand armies are currently working to retrieve deceased animals on Kangaroo Island.

So far, they have also helped at least four injured koalas but there is no report yet on echidna welfare.

Kangaroo Island is also home to Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centr, which works with the short-beaked echidna.

10 daily contacted the Centre for comment but was told the researchers are currently working in the field and may not be in the office for several days.

Dale Nimmo

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Echidna CSI was also contacted for comment.

Feature Image:  @EchidnaCSI