Australian echidnas are one of the only two types of mammals that lay eggs for babies, and despite their spiky appearance, they’re rather adorable. Even Bindi Irwin, the daughter of the infamous yet late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, shared that this is her spirit animal, but for what reasons, we’re not exactly sure.
But aside from being so delightful, these little creatures are helping fight climate change and they don’t even know it. Australian soil has been in horrible shape due to over 200 years of European farming practices which have depleted the nutrients and organic matter in the lands, including carbon. This is not only horrible news for soil health, but also for all the attempts at addressing some issues of global warming.
Thankfully, the native Australian echidna has become part of the solution because of its very own animal instincts. This particular animal love to dig furrows, pits, and depressions in the soil as it searches for ants to eat. What research has found is that this type of soil “engineering” could actually significantly benefit the environment.
When echidnas dig, they end up trapping leaves and seeds in the soil. This then promotes plant growth, which helps improve the health of the soil and even keeps carbon in it instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
It’s important to underestimate this process. Just by improving the echidna habitat, there is a substantial improvement of soil health, which can also increase the climate action efforts in combating the horrible effects of global warming.
Animals Are Nature’s Excavators
Echidna’s aren’t the only ones that help improve soil health but a number of other animals help via their extensive digging too. These so-called “ecosystem engineers” help create a service that aids soils, plants, and many other organisms.
Unfortunately, Australia’s very own animal excavators are either restricted, threatened or extinct, except for the echidna. Gratefully, the echidna is quite common around most of Australia’s habitats that lie across the huge continent.
Since echidnas are such productive diggers, they manage to move an incredible amount of soil yearly. In fact, according to the Australian Wildfire Conservancy’s Scotia Sanctuary located in southwest New South Wales and its long-term monitoring, which found that they can move around 7 tons, or 8 trailer loads, or soil annually.
The soil depressions left behind by the echidnas can even reach up to 50 centimeters (or 19.69 inches) wide, and 15 centimeters (or 5.9 inches) deep. While echidnas have an easier time searching for ants, when those are difficult to find, they tend to dig deeper in order to find termites. This translates to them making even bigger holes or pits.
But what they don’t realize is happening is that as they dig, they are actually creating a critically important function in nature, which is to aid in matchmaking between seeds and water.
In order for seeds to germinate, they need to come together via water and soil nutrients. This study showed just how echidna’s manage to do that through their digging.
Researchers tested to see if seeds managed to get trapped in the echidna pits after it rained. In order to test their theory, they marked a variety of seeds using different colored dyes, which they then placed on soil surfaces found in the partially dry woodland near Cobar, New South Wales, near areas where they made pits comparable to the one echidnas make. Afterwards, they managed to simulate the flow of rain.
They observed that most seeds managed to wash into the pits, and those that began in the pits also remained in them. The experiment also showed just how echidna pits boost the chances of seeds, nutrients and water to meet, which gives the seeds a higher chance to germinate, grow, and survive in Australian’s lacking soil.
What these manufactured “recovery” pits do is they become soil and plant “hotspots” that allow more plants to grow across Australia’s landscape. Their research has also learned that a number of these pits keep other important soil invertebrates and microbial communities that work in favor of lessening the negative effects of climate change.
They also play a vital role in helping break down any organic matter than helps produce much needed soil carbon. This is mostly why people attempt to restore the soil by imitating the natural structures created by animals like echidnas.
How Echidnas Work as Carbon Farmers
Current studies show that the way echidnas dig is a major boost in getting more carbon in soil that has otherwise been depleted of its carbon content.
Organic matter that is on the surface level of soil is often broken down by intense ultraviolet light. This then causes carbon and nitrogen to be released into the atmosphere. When echidnas forage and dig, it causes the organic matter to get buried within the soil, where it gets exposed to microbes. The material is then broken and down and releases carbon and nitrogen into the soil.
Of course, this isn’t something that happens right away. According to their research, it takes around 16 to 18 months for the carbon levels in the pits to surpass what is found in bare soils.
What the whole process of echidna digging, capture and buildup does is it ‘creates a patchwork of litter, carbon, nutrients, and plant hotspots.’ These then create a very fertile environment that moves towards healthier and more functional ecosystems. And moreover, this will be even more important as global warming continues to drive the planet to higher and drier climates.
How to Harness the Power of Echidnas
Since soil restoration is quite pricy, as it is impractical, when it comes to certain vast areas of land, using echidnas could offer a more practical and cost-effective option for soil restoration by using them to dig and burrow.
Considering that Australia’s echidna populations are not threatened, still, landscape management is important in order to make sure that they are not endangered in the future.
Echidnas are normally found in hollow logs, which means that when humans remove fallen timber or logs ends up reducing their habitat and other feeding sites. In order to keep echidnas safe, restrictions are needed in order to prevent them from losing their habitats.
Another issue with echidnas is the fact that they often become roadkill. As they attempt to cross the road to get to other land areas, then end up getting run over instead. In order to stop this from happening, ground plants and shrubs need to be planted in between the patches of native bush found in their natural habitats. This will then create vegetation corridors, which will allow the echidnas to go from one area to the next in a safer manner.
Although the echidna has incredibly sharp spines which it uses to protect itself in the wild, they can’t always protect themselves from foxes and cats unfortunately. This also means that other ways to protect them from predators need to be generated as well.
Australia’s delicate environment is in a serious decline, which is why echidnas can be incredibly crucial to an already fragile ecosystem by providing an invaluable service by simply doing what they were created to do, dig! This is why these cute creatures need to be protected, sheltered and guarded in order to make sure their species does not become threatened it the future.
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