A lovely book filled with beautiful photographs, The Echidna: Australia’s Enigma is rich with feeling and fascination for the echidna, one of the two world’s egg-laying mammals. The subtitle refers to how echidnas keep surprising the people studying them. For example, echidnas produce milk but lay eggs. Dr. Peggy Rismiller writes, “Basic biological questions asked over 150 years ago had not been conclusively answered. The intricacies of echidna life style and biology had me hooked. Here was a challenge, an environment and a purpose that captivated my imagination and energy.”
Writing in a lively manner, Dr. Rismiller introduces the reader into the wonder and satisfaction of researching an elusive, little known mammal. She tells of the troubles of simply tracking an echidna with a radio transmitter. “As natural diggers and underground dwellers, echidnas go into caves, under tree roots, deep into soil litter, sand dunes, and below salty surfaces or snow fields. Echidnas have taught us tracking tricks that manufacturers of transmitters never dreamed of.”
The author sets out to answer questions posed in 1881 by George Bennett, Jr., a noted British naturalist. These basic questions of “How do monotremes (egg-layers) mate?” and “How long does the young suckle (length of lactation)?” have never been answered. Dr. Rismiller writes, “Echidna Time. New discoveries do not happen quickly. Ninety-two years after the first European description of the echidna came a great revelation – echidnas are egg-laying mammals!”
The book’s promoter writes, “However, this animal tale is more than a collection of scientific data and unusual observations. The Echidna makes us consider how and why this peculiar creature who mingled with the dinosaurs has been such a survivor, and teaches us a greater lesson about endurance and sustainability in the world around us.” For the reader, The Echidna: Australia’s Enigma is all this and more.
Dr. Rismiller holding a puggle (baby echidna). (c)RISMAC
“Monotreme Moments” (excerpt)
“What do you call a baby echidna? In the winter of 1988, Earthwatch volunteers from Australia, Great Britain, and the United States were helping with echidna research when a female echidna carrying a pouch young was brought in. “What do you call a baby echidna?” asked one volunteer. Everyone looked to the Australians. “Well, a ‘joey’ is the young of a marsupial but I don’t know the name for a baby echidna,” answered one. “It’s so strange and … uh ... organic, it must have a name,” injected an American volunteer. “How about calling it a pug?” suggested our English teacher volunteer. “Pug is a term for an imp or dwarf animal and it also means a piece of clay.”
“Wait a minute.” Mike piped up, “The word ‘puggle’ has been around for a long time. While I was working with an old rabbiter in the early 1970s, he told me about ‘puggles’. The word came from the practice of bush people ‘puggling’ a pole in search of rabbits and occasionally turning up this strange baby animal.” We documented this and the name (puggle for a baby echidna) was introduced into scientific literature.”
For further reading go to Dr. Peggy Rismiller's Pelican Lagoon Research Centre
Buy her hard-to-find book on Amazon.com.
Photos from the book copyrighted by RISMAC