They’re cute, they’re odd, they’re considered to be living fossils. That alone should be enough, but echidnas – the spiny anteaters of Australia and New Guinea – may also be the best examples of how to survive during and after a disastrous forest fire. And look cute doing it.
We observed echidnas as one of very few survivors after the catastrophic bush fire at the Warrumbungles National Park in Eastern Australia in 2013. This made us realize that this species would be a good model to test the hypothesis that animals that have low energetic demands are coping better during and after catastrophic environmental events.
That’s Dr. Julia Nowack from the University of New England explaining the purpose of her new study, the results of which are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The state of low energy couch-potatoness is called torpor and echidnas – as well as a few mammals, marsupials, rodents and bats – are capable of this short-term hibernation period where they lower their body temperatures and stay inactive for days.
To test their fire survival ability, Nowack and her colleagues placed GPS trackers on echidna’s in a nature preserve prior to setting a fire for clearing the area of debris and helping vegetation that depends on the remains of fires.
In what sounds like the plot of a dystopian movie, they tracked the movement of the echidnas throughout the multi-day blaze and during the cooling-down period that followed. During the most intense parts of the fire, the echidnas hid inside holes in logs and trees and entered torpor for up to four days at a time – much longer than usual. After the fire, the echidnas stayed in torpor states for many more days. Oh, no!
Before you get out the tissues, the researchers said almost all of the tagged echidnas survived the fire and they found very few untagged ones dead, despite the fact the fire was deadly to the rest of the mammal population in the area.
The study showed that echidnas can quickly lower their body temperatures and enter torpor to survive the fire, then stay in torpor when food and water are scarce afterwards, thereby avoiding starvation and being eaten by birds and other animal that prey on survivors of fires (the plot for a new dystopian movie thickens). Professor Fritz Geiser, study co-author, thinks this is why echidnas live much longer in general that mammals of similar size and believes this is how many small mammals survived the asteroid impact and global heat wave that ended the Cretaceous period and the dinosaurs.
But if they would’ve been able to go into torpor, they could’ve survived a long, long time.
More research is needed on that theory. We’re just glad those cute little echidnas continue to survive … not to mention providing guys with justification for being couch potatoes and inspiring a song by Frank Zappa and the plot for the soon-to-be-written Evil Fire Starters and the Rise of the Killer Echidnas.