Echidna trains: explained

By Australian Geographic 6 August 2021
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Get on board the love train – we’re learning about echidna courtship.

Echidna courtship is a story of determination and commitment. Unlike other animals, which use pretty colours or dances to attract their mates, male echidnas form an orderly line behind a female echidna in hope to be the last one standing. 

These lines, known as echidna love trains, can be seen all throughout winter (the breeding season) and are on average around three to five echidnas long. 

“The biggest echidna train I’ve ever seen was 11 animals,” says echidna expert Peggy Rismiller, who has observed countless echidna trains over her 30-year career.  “As far as I know, not too many people have seen that big of a train.”

During mating season, Peggy says the males travel great distances, even outside of their home ranges. 

“Females generally remain with in a 20-50Ha range. In one breeding season we radio tracked ‘Casey’, a well known male who traveled back and forth nearly 2km a day courting two different females. The males go where the female goes.  If she only travels 200m in a day, they stay with her or take off to find another train….like Casey.”

Even for someone with Peggy’s experience, many aspects of the echidna train are still shrouded in mystery. 

“We still don’t know why some males are more successful breeders than others and we don’t know whether she’s choosing a male or if it’s the males who compete until one of them wins,” Peggy says. What we do know, however, is that it can rough out there. 

“It’s hard to imagine an aggressive echidna, but I’ve seen males actually push and shove each other and go head to head.” And the younger male echidnas of the train don’t stand a chance: “for them, maybe it’s just training for the future, because they certainly don’t get a look in.”

Related: Echidna penises: Why they’re so weird

Focus is also key to success. “I’ve worked in the field a lot with these animals. I can pick up the last male on the train, weigh and check him, put him down and he’s just off after the female again. They only want one thing and they can’t get interrupted too much. 

“If someone interrupts them, the males usually hunker down and it’s the females that sort of look around and leave the males thinking, ‘oh, where’d she go, where’d she go?’” All they have to do to reform the train is put their snouts to the air and follow her scent, then they’re back on track.

Indeed, it’s very difficult for a female echidna to evade her prospective suitors. Peggy recalls one particularly good example of this on the west end of Kangaroo Island: 

“There’s lots of nice big termite mounds there, and sometimes they get hollowed out. In this one case we were following a female and we knew she’d disappeared into the mound. We did a stake out and next thing we know there’s seven echidnas coming out of this termite mound after following her there. They were piled on top of each other.”

So, what happens when one male is left standing? Well, he starts digging. “It’s not like birds where they just hop on each other. The male echidna has to work a lot harder. The successful male will start digging beside the female and he has to dig deep enough so his tail is underneath hers and they mate cloaca on cloaca.”

This article wouldn’t be complete without an honourable mention of the now infamous echidna penis, which during copulation, can grow to one third of the echidna’s body length. That’s on top of the fact that it quite literally looks like a third leg. 

“Copulation lasts a minimum of 30 minutes and can reach a maximum of 90 minutes. After that, they go in separate directions.”

The end result is an adorable puggle.

(Image credit: Ben Nottidge / Alamy Stock Photo)