No one likes to be labeled, especially when it’s the wrong label. And the echidnas of southern Australia are no different. Don’t call them porcupines, please! And don’t even think about referring to one as a “hedgehog.” These spiny anteaters are proud of their distinctive name.

“But,” you say, “they look so much like hedgehogs and porcupines. What’s the difference?”

On behalf of the spiky, slow-moving echidna, we’re revealing not only the traits that set all of these spiny creatures apart, but also where in the world you can see each one with Nat Hab.

Get to Know the Echidna

The first thing you’ll notice about an echidna is its spines. These spikes are actually long (up to 5 inches), tough, hollow hair follicles. Echidnas use them in defense against predators, rolling up into a ball of radiating spines when one approaches. They also use the claws on their hind limbs to dig themselves out of danger.

Short-beaked Echidna feeding from insects in crack in fallen log

Echidnas are small creatures, and these dual defensive mechanisms are crucial to their survival. They grow anywhere from 14 to 30 inches long and weigh 5.5 to 22 pounds.

Not all echidna spines are created equal. The echidnas you might see on Nat Hab’s Australia South: Tasmania, Kangaroo Island & the Great Ocean Road trip have much darker spines than those in the eastern states such as Queensland. Over there, echidnas have much lighter spines that look a little like blonde highlights. And on Kangaroo Island, you’ll see pure white and even some red-headed echidnas.

cute Echidna anteaters Tasmania Australia

Tasmania, Australia.

If you head Down Under between mid-May and early September, you may see one of the echidnas’ most interesting behaviors: the mating train. During the breeding season, a female will lead the train, followed by up to ten male echidnas, with a smaller, younger male at the end of the line. The males follow suit over long distances until the female is ready to mate.

Echidna, Tachyglossus species. It 'a mammal, the Order of Monotreme. Bruny Island in South Bruny National Park, Tasmania, Australia.

South Bruny National Park, Tasmania.

Here’s another defining feature of the echidna: Along with the platypus, they’re the only egg-laying mammal species. About a month after mating, the female lays a single, soft-shelled, leathery egg into her pouch. Just ten days later, a baby echidna hatches! And get this—the baby echidnas are called “puggles.” Have you ever heard anything cuter?

Although the gestation period is brief, the puggles stay in a den with Mama for about a year before venturing out alone.

Museums Victoria Staff (2016) Tachyglossus aculeatus Short-beaked Echidna in Museums Victoria Collections

Short-beaked echidna puggle © Ian R McCann, Museums Victoria Collections

Echidnas have short beaks that you might think house sharp teeth. But no, there’s a reason they’re also referred to as “spiny anteaters.” They have no teeth at all, but they do have long, sticky tongues—up to 6 inches long. Their quick tongues are ideal for slurping up ants, worms, termites and insect larvae.

Fun fact: The scientific name for the echidna, Tachyglossus, means “fast tongue.”

Where Can I See Echidnas?

Echidnas live only in Australia and New Guinea. Of the native Australian mammals, they have the widest distribution throughout the continent’s geographical landscape. Echidnas prefer alpine meadows, coastal forests and interior deserts.

Echidna venturing over mossy forest in Tasmania Australia

An echidna photographed by a Nat Hab Expedition Leader in Tasmania © Mike Hillman

Check out echidnas first-hand on Nat Hab’s South Australia trip. Known for its pristine beaches and local wines, Kangaroo Island—Australia’s third largest island—is home not only to echidnas, but also kangaroos, wallabies, New Zealand fur seals, Australian sea lions and one of the continent’s largest koala populations.

Our South Australia trip also includes a walk with a researcher who is a world expert on the short-beaked echidna.

Another fun fact: This ancient egg-laying mammal once roamed with dinosaurs!

We also stop at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve near Warrnambool on the mainland, where you find echidnas, koalas, emus, turtles, possums, swans, blue wrens and, yes, kangaroos and wallabies. Tower Hill is part of an Aboriginal Cultural Landscape and is home to some of Australia’s best-loved wildlife living inside the large crater of this dormant volcano near the Great Ocean Road.

We also visit Tasmania, where we’ll see more echidnas, as well as pademelons and wombats near one of our lodges on the edge of Cradle Mountain National Park and within the Derwent Valley, where we stay for two nights.

Are Echidnas Threatened or Endangered?

Short answer: It depends on the echidna species. The Sir David’s long-beaked echidna and the western long-beaked echidna are both on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of critically endangered animals. The eastern long-beaked echidna is on the list of vulnerable species. By contrast, the short-beaked echidna is considered a species of “Least Concern” by the IUCN.

Warning sign for wildlife crossing on Tasmanian dirty road, please drive slowly, kangaroos, tasmania devils and echidnas live here too

Within Australia and New Guinea, laws exist to protect echidnas within their habitat range. It’s illegal in Australia to pick up or move an echidna from its habitat. Thankfully, many of the echidnas in both countries live in protected areas, and the species population in all locations continues to be studied and monitored by conservationists.

Get to Know the Hedgehog

Now that we’ve determined that an echidna is not a hedgehog, let’s give that spiky critter its due. These tiny, carnivorous creatures weigh up to 2.4 pounds and grow to between 5.5 and 12 inches long. The world’s 15 different species of hedgehogs live in grasslands, hedgerows, woodlands and meadows across Europe, Asia and Africa.

Fun fact: Hedgehogs swim quite well and can climb trees!

Hedgehog walking through a puddle of water in a grassy field in the summer

You probably know hedgehogs by their prickly spines, or quills, the defining characteristic that, like porcupines, leads to the confusion between the species. Like the echidna, the hedgehog uses its spines for defense by curling up into a tight ball, tucking in its head, tail and legs, and protecting the vulnerable parts of its body. It is, however, a myth that a hedgehog can roll about when it’s balled up—as adorable as that would be!

Hedgehog curled up in ball laying on grass

Whereas porcupine quills detach from their body quite easily, hedgehog quills do not. Porcupines have as many as 6,000 of these keratin quills on their body.

A hedgehog’s spines aren’t always hard and spiky. When hedgehogs are born, their spines are soft and short. It isn’t until they’re about three weeks old that the spines have hardened and gotten stiffer, sharper and longer. It’s also around this time that, with their eyes now open, they can follow their mother outside the nest as she hunts for food.

Two adorable newborn baby hedgehogs with eyes closed sleeping together

Speaking of food, hedgehogs are named for their method of eating. They root around underneath hedges to find insects, small mice, snails, lizards, frogs, eggs and snakes—and they make a cute little snorting sound as they do so! Hedgehogs are mostly nocturnal and seek out their meals at night. A hedgehog can eat as much as one-third of its body weight in one night. If it’s a rainy day, you may also see them out after the rain lets up.

Wild european hedgehog eating a grub

One more fun fact: Hedgehogs have another cool defensive mechanism in addition to their spines. They can make their spikes poisonous by “borrowing” poison from certain plants to which they’re immune. They make a frothy saliva, lick the plants, then their spines, spreading the poison onto their bodies. Researchers believe this also helps the hedgehog hide its scent from predators.

Where Can I See Hedgehogs?

Although hedgehog numbers are declining in the UK (more on that in a minute), it’s still a good spot to seek them out in hedgerows and meadows. On our English Cotswolds trip, you’ll experience a slightly more refined natural setting than on some of our more rugged departures. Within the Cotswold Hills, we explore Britain’s largest designated National Landscape and its ancient beech forest, wildflower meadows, idyllic hedgerows and trout-filled streams—prime hedgehog habitat.

Nat Hab travelers photograph vibrant wildflower fields In Cotswolds countryside UK

Nat Hab travelers photograph vibrant wildflower fields in England © Hollie Galloway

In the Chedworth Valley, we look for the now-rare hedgehogs in polar, chestnut, rowan and whitebeam forests and hedgerows. We take time to walk through the Slad Valley, untouched by development and home to four small nature reserves. We may also glimpse songbirds, butterflies, deer, foxes and badgers in this idyllic vale.

Are Hedgehogs Threatened or Endangered?

Sadly, native hedgehog numbers are declining rapidly in the UK. Nationally, the rural hedgehog population has declined between 30% and 75% since 2000. They are very rarely found on farmland anymore, increasing the importance of carefully managed wildlife-friendly garden areas.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species have partnered on a project called Hedgehog Street to empower people with a better understanding of the beloved hedgehog and how it can survive and thrive in suburban areas.

Watching out for our cute small spiky friends. Focus on sign so stands out from background with is blurred. Hedgehog caution sign

There are many steps one can take at home to provide positive hedgehog habitat, including linking together community gardens as a sort of hedgehog highway, installing a ramp at a pond’s edge, eliminating chemical use, effectively dealing with netting and litter, and more. Wondering how to help if you don’t live in the UK? Consider adopting a hedgehog (symbolically, of course)!

Get to Know the Porcupine

As you’ve probably guessed, porcupines aren’t hedgehogs, and they’re not echidnas. But you can’t deny their similar appearances! These larger, slow-moving rodents also have sharp quills, and they’re found on every continent except Antarctica.

There are Old World porcupines—found in Africa, Europe and Asia—and New World porcupines— found in North, Central and South America. The North American porcupine is the only one found in the United States and Canada.

American Porcupine Erethizon dorsatum eating rose hips in Teslin, Yukon, Canada

North American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum eating rose hips in Yukon, Canada.

Porcupine quills are super long. Some can grow up to 12 inches long, for example, on the Africa’s crested porcupine. Like echidnas and hedgehogs, porcupines use their spikes for defense. They shake them, making them rattle, as a warning to predators. They can also charge backwards at predators, quills first!

A porcupine’s quills are loosely attached to its body, but if one is lost, it’s not forever. They grow back over time. All told, a North American porcupine can have 30,000 or more quills.

These spiky gals and guys are generally larger than hedgehogs and echidnas, though different types vary widely in size. The North African crested porcupine grows up to 36 inches long, while the smallest—the Bahia hairy dwarf porcupine— grows to only 15 inches long. And porcupines can weigh between 2.5 and 77 pounds—quite a range.

Their quills range in size, too. New World porcupines have shorter quills that grow to be about 4 inches long, while Old World porcupine quills can grow up to 20 inches long.

Alert Cape porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) with erect quills, South Africa

Alert Cape porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis) with erect quills, South Africa.

Like echidnas and hedgehogs, porcupines are predominantly nocturnal. While both New World and Old World porcupines prefer the nighttime for foraging, New World porcupines spend most of their time in the trees, while the Old World species stick to the ground.

Porcupines are herbivores, sticking to a diet of wood, bark, stems, nuts, tubers, seeds, grass, leaves, fruit and buds. Unlike echidnas, porcupines have teeth, and they often chew on bones to keep them sharp.

Where Can I See Porcupines?

As we mentioned above, porcupines live across the globe on every continent except Antarctica. They can be found just about anywhere, as expected given their geographical range. Porcupines love deserts, grasslands, mountains, rain forests and forests. They make their dens within tree branches or roots, in rocky crevices, in hollowed-out logs and in brushy areas.

Leopard hunts an African porcupine

African porcupine defends itself from leopard attack.

Since they live in so many places, you may spot porcupines on almost any Nat Hab trip! Look for Old World porcupines on our adventures in  Africa, Europe and Asia, and keep your eyes peeled for New World porcupines in North, Central and South America.

North American Porcupine (Erethizon Dorsatum) standing in a tree, also known as the Canadian Porcupine or common porcupine

North American porcupine.

Are Porcupines Threatened or Endangered?

Good news! When it comes to porcupines’ status in the world, most are listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, depending on the species. The only two that are listed as “Vulnerable” are the Philippine porcupine and the bristle-spined porcupine.

Close-up of Mom and Baby Porcupine Faces

We hope this has given you a better understanding of the differences among the echidnas of southern Australia, hedgehogs and porcupines. We’d love to see you on an upcoming Australia South trip to introduce you to an echidna first-hand!

Nat Hab & WWF traveler meets an echidna for the first time at a wildlife sanctuary in Tasmania

Nat Hab & WWF traveler meets an echidna for the first time at a wildlife sanctuary in Tasmania © Dellys Starr