Taronga is hoping for a rare repeat of last year’s Echidna breeding season, which saw the birth of two healthy Short-beaked Echidna puggles. If successful, it will be only the second time in 30 years that Echidnas have been born at Taronga Zoo.
Although an iconic Australian animal, the Echidna is notoriously difficult to breed in human care, with Taronga Zoo only one of three zoos in Australia to achieve this. Last year’s success has been attributed to Taronga’s breeding facility, which was designed after extensive research and consultation with other Zoos and wildlife parks.
The echidna breeding season began in July and keepers are keeping close watch over the bizarre, and little-understood mating ritual echidnas engage in. Known as ‘trailing’, it commences around the winter solstice when the female echidna releases a pheromone to attract all males in the area, causing them to suddenly start trailing behind the female bumper-to-bumper style, all in a line. Echidnas can trail for up to 10 hours a day, potentially over several days.
Close monitoring of the echidnas is needed to check the breeding progression, said Keeper Imogen.
“Every day, we review the previous night’s CCTV footage to monitor their breeding habits. When we think a female has been mated, she is moved to a yard that has an insulated nest box where she will feel secure enough to make her burrow,” Keeper Imogen said.
Echidnas are unique in that they are a monotreme - a mammal that lay eggs. In the wild, echidnas would normally dig a deep burrow underground to nest, but at Taronga special nest boxes have been created for them to build their burrows. The nestboxes mimic their natural environment, and use less soil so the keepers can monitor the health and progress of the puggle.
Female echidnas typically lay only one egg, which is deposited and hatched in a temporary pouch which forms from a fold of skin across the stomach. The pouch itself is make shift, created when their body is going to produce an egg.
“It can take up to 75 days before we see a puggle emerge from the pouch, including egg laying, incubation, and nursing, so we may not be entirely sure for another two months or more,” said Keeper Imogen.
“Our breeding program at Taronga, which ensures an insurance population, is unique. We also breed them for education, so one of the best ways to see our echidnas is through our school Zoo Mobile, and what we learn from our breeding program can help with the conservation of the critically-endangered Long-beaked Echidna,” she said.