First spiny anteater puggle hatched at Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Global announced Monday it has hatched its first echidna — or spiny anteater — at its Safari Park in North County.

The baby — from an Oceanic species with small eyes and a distinctive beak — is called a puggle, and was estimated to have hatched Feb. 14.

Echidnas (ih-KID-nas) are notoriously difficult to breed in managed care, so wildlife specialists said they are extremely pleased with the progress of this puggle, whose sex has not yet been determined.

“We are thrilled and excited to welcome our first-ever echidna puggle at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park,” said Savanna Smith, wildlife care specialist. “It is an honor to care for this little one, as we learn more about this species’ reproduction through this puggle’s hatching.

Puggle’s mother and father also live at the Safari Park. Photo by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Global

The echidna puggle will remain out of the public view until further notice, but zoo-goers may see adult echidnas on occasion in the animal ambassador area at Walkabout Australia or on a Roos and Mates Behind-the-Scenes Safari, when they become available, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The Animal Planet reality show “Crikey! The Irwins” has featured echidnas at least three times. In November 2019, an episode featured Australia Zoo teenager Robert Irwin helping save an echidna trapped under a store refrigerator.

The San Diego puggle is still developing its protective spines, and is moving around on wobbly little legs as it grows and gains strength — using sharp claws to dig into the ground and keep its balance.

Echidnas are one of only two Australian mammals that lay eggs; the other is the platypus. 

The puggle’s mother, named Orange, and father, Shaw, also live at the Safari Park. Echidnas are solitary animals, with adult males and females only coming together to breed once a year.

About four weeks after conception, the mother lays a single, soft egg about the size of a grape and places it in a pouch on her abdomen. After 7 to 10 days, a tiny, naked puggle — smaller than a jelly bean — hatches. 

The puggle uses its tiny, see-through claws to grip the special hairs within the mother’s pouch.

The mother does not have nipples, the way other mammals do. Instead, the little puggle laps up milk that the mother’s body secretes from special glands in her pouch. Once the puggle starts to develop spiky spines at around 6 to 8 weeks, the mother deposits it in a specially constructed nursery burrow, returning to feed it every 3 to 6 days.

A day in the life of this puggle consists of sleeping the majority of the time, growing and developing in its warm, dark burrow.

Animal care specialists check the puggle each day to monitor its body condition, hydration and weight, ensuring that it is getting proper nutrition from its mother.

While it weighed less than an ounce at hatching, the growing puggle now weighs just over a pound and measures about 6 inches in length.

Once the puggle gains strength and is weaned from its mother, at around 6 to 7 months, it will start venturing out on its own and will no longer have contact with its mother.

Echidnas live in Australia, Tasmania (the island state of Australia) and New Guinea, from the highlands to the deserts and forests.

Adult echidnas vary in size by location, but can measure 14 to 30 inches in length and weigh 5 to 22 pounds when fully grown.

The echidna may be active during the day, evening or both, depending on the season and food sources. They have no teeth, but are well adapted to eat termites, ants, beetle larvae and other soil invertebrates.

Their large, strong claws are great for breaking open rotting logs, and their long snouts — made of keratin, the same material human fingernails are made of — allow them to root around in soil.

Mystery still surrounds this spiny species. Echidnas are quite elusive in their native habitats, so it’s hard to study their natural breeding behaviors. 

Short-beaked echidnas are a very common species, but the other three species of long-beaked echidna are listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

“It is hoped that the short-beaked echidna puggle’s hatching at the Safari Park will help unravel some of the mysteries of echidna reproduction, and provide vital information to help save the long-beaked echidna from extinction,” the zoo said.