Echidnas are sometimes called spiny anteaters and belong in the family Tachyglossidae (Gill, 1872). They are monotremes, an order of egg-laying mammals. There are four species of echidnas living today. They, along with the platypus, are the only living mammals who lay eggs and the only surviving members of the order Monotremata.
Superficially, they resemble the anteaters of South America and other spiny mammals like porcupines and adorable hedgehogs. They are usually a mix of brown, black and cream in colour. While rare, there have been several reported cases of albino echidnas, their eyes pink and their spines white. Echidnas have long, slender snouts that act as both nose and mouth for these cuties. The Giant Echidna we see in the fossil record had beaks more than double this size.
Like the platypus, they are equipped with electro sensors, but while the platypus has 40,000 electroreceptors on its bill, the long-beaked echidna has only 2,000. The short-beaked echidna, which lives in a drier environment, has no more than 400 at the tip of its snout.
Echidnas evolved between 20 and 50 million years ago, descending from a platypus-like monotreme. Their ancestors were aquatic, but echidnas have adapted to life on land. Today, they weigh in at about 7 kg today but back in the Pleistocene, they were much larger. The Giant Echnida, Megalibwilia ramsayi was about 10% larger at 10 kg and Zaglossus hacketti was a whopping 30 kg.
Fossil remains are relatively rare and sadly, incomplete, but they tell us potentially two other species of Echidna thriving in the Pleistocene. We also find Robust Echidna, Zaglossus robustus, in slightly older Miocene aged outcrops in a goldmine in Australia. The Giant Echnida's we find in the fossil record are relatives of the Long-Beaked Echidnas who live in New Guinea today.