I’m here today to tell you about that time an echidna bruised my leg and it was EVERYTHING.
In case we haven’t met, hi, I’m Rachel, and I like animals more than people.
When we moved to Australia, I determined that I would meet as many native Australian animals as I could. Because, bifid*. Also they’re just generally the oddest, most unlikely, most enigmatic collection of animals you’ve ever heard about.
Take echidnas, for example.
Echindas are monotremes. That word means literally one hole, and excuse me for being graphic, but it means they have a cloaca (one hole) rather than the traditional two holes that placental and marsupial mammals have. I’ll leave you to google those words and form your own conclusions, since I don’t want my very nerdy blog to be flagged NSFW. The interesting thing about that is that it’s a morphological feature shared with reptiles, showing they branched evolutionarily earlier than either marsupial or placental mammals.
Now we’ve started with echidna facts, shall we keep going?
> Echidnas lay eggs, something else they share with reptiles.
> Echidnas have electroreceptors in the ends of their noses, which they use to detect insects. Ants and termites are their diet of choice.
> A baby echidna is called a puggle.
> Echidnas exude milk through patches of skin in their pouches to feed their young.
> Echidna spines are modified hairs, but they also have a second layer of actual hair. This is thicker or thinner depending on what kind of environment they live in.
> There are four species of echidna still alive today, and all live in Australia and New Guinea.
> There’s one species prevalent in Australia; the short beaked echidna or Tachyglossus aculeatus.
All this stuff I knew from university, books, and general nerding about before I actually met an echidna IRL and then I had much more simple questions.
What do the spikes feel like? Answer: they feel satisfyingly solid, almost rubbery to the touch, but they don’t bend at all. In fact, they’ve been known to puncture 18-wheeler tyres!
What do they sound like? Answer: like they have a severe sinus infection. They’re very snuffly, and keep doing big sneezes. It’s adorable.
Can you pick them up? Answer: kinda! I had to shift Yella because he was standing slightly awkwardly on my thighs. Turns out it’s all about getting the right angle under their bellies.
How heavy are they? Answer: very. Hence the bruise Yella left on my thigh after the aforementioned awkward stand.
What do their tongues feel like? Answer: oddly strong. And very long (apparently they can get up to 18 cm??)
Are echidnas really as cute as they look? Answer: YES.
How ridiculous do I look when I am truly happy? Answer: pretty darn. And I don’t care one bit.
If you too want to experience what it’s like to be bruised by a friendly short beaked echidna, you can pay the bargainous price of $39 to Australia Zoo to have your hand covered in raw mince and ground insects and let an echidna lick it off you. Best $39 I ever spent in my life, if you ask me.
Things to know about echidna encounters at Australia Zoo
- Entrance to Australia Zoo is required to take part in an encounter, and tickets are an eye watering $59 for adults and $35 for children. I was hesitant, but at the end of the day I felt that was good value as the park is huge, and encounters and shows are all very good value/free once you get in. However, you can probably get a sense of what kind of animal nerd I am and I realise not everyone has this level of enthusiasm about small to medium sized furry things.
- Australia Zoo is on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. I recommend staying in Peregian Beach which is a 40 minute drive away.
- You can learn a bit more about the encounter here.
- There’s a photographer who comes with you to the enclosure and gets some happy snaps of you (beware, he is very fond of the flash- hellooo shiny face). You can choose one of his photos to turn into a photo gift, included in the price of your encounter. We chose a fridge magnet each and I now smile every time I go into the fridge which, let’s face it, is quite often.
- You can also pay $50 to have all the photos taken during the session put onto a DVD for you to take away.
- The photographer said we couldn’t really take photos of our own, but I did anyway. I just waited for him to leave. The keeper seemed to have no problem with this, and I don’t mind a bit of echidna saliva on my camera – although you may feel differently.
- The first part of the encounter involves the echidna sitting on a log, and you can pat it whilst posing for photos. This is very cool, but I suppose a chance for them to work out whether or not you’re safe around animals and therefore can move to phase two.
- Phase two involves going and sitting on a sunlounger cushion on the floor, and having echidna food pasted in to your hand. This food is a goo made from crushed insects, minced beef, egg, and vitamins. The echidna is then placed on your lap, where it sits happily and laps up all its food. When one person has had a good turn, the next is given a handful of goo and the echidna happily trundles along to their lap.
- You’re given hand sanitiser and paper towels to try and rid yourself of the semi-dried on goo left on your hands after the encounter, but this will probably be fairly ineffective. There’s a stand pipe right outside the enclosure that’ll do a better job.
- There are actually two echidnas involved in the encounter. Can you tell them apart in the photos above? Yella is the more yellow looking guy (clue’s in the name) who we did the whole encounter with. Prickles was let loose at the end of our encounter, and came snuffling over to see if there was any food left and generally check things out. Prickles is blind, having had to have his eyes removed due to a nasty case of chlamydia (ouch). You’d never know though, and he’s a friendly little chap. He stayed around for a bit and we got to feed him a little, as well. Here’s Prickles showing off his beautiful little face:
- Take off any rings before you get there. I didn’t, and I probably still have echidna food residue on mine.
- Wear sturdy trousers. As you can see, I did not, and now I have the bruise to show for it (although I am very proud of the bruise and quite sad it’s now fading)..
- There can be up to 4 people per encounter, but we were the only two in ours and the keeper spent ages chatting to us and answering our questions.
- I felt confident the echidnas were not in any distress and were free to leave whenever they wanted.
- As for wider Australia Zoo ethics, we did our research and were satisfied but as always please do your own due diligence and make sure you are happy to give them your money.
So I have to know. Have you ever wanted to pat an echidna? Or hand feed one its lunch?
*That’s a biology nerd in joke and likely one you’ll only understand if your name is Nelly. If you get it and your name is not Nelly, please tell me, because I think we’ve got a lot to talk about.
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