And monotremes – which also include the equally puzzling platypus –are the world's only egg-laying mammals.
An aboriginal myth explains the spines: the echidna came into being, apparently, after hunters threw spears into a wombat. Early scientists, however, were more puzzled by the egg.
It turns out that the echidna is a monotreme, which means "single hole" in Ancient Greek and refers to its bird-like cloaca – a shared orifice for the urinary and excretory tract that is unique to this ancient Australasian order.
* Seek out echidnas – as well as kangaroos, koalas and other Australian specials – on Kangaroo Island in South Australia with Austravel (08; austravel.com) from £1,195. Mike Unwin is the author of 100 Bizarre Animals, published by Bradt Travel Guides (£16.99).
The price includes return flights with Qantas from Heathrow via Singapore to Adelaide, two nights in Adelaide, and three days' self-drive tour of Kangaroo Island with two nights' accommodation, car hire and Seacat transfers. Readers of The Independent can buy the book for only £11.50 including UK p&p at
This infant is nourished on milk that seeps out on to the mother's under-fur, monotremes having – you guessed it – no nipples.
And there's more weirdness: a darting tongue that winkles termites from rotten wood; legs that stick out sideways like a lizard's; and a body temperature that can fall to 31C – lethally low for any normal mammal. It is found across Australia, generally in dry, open country with abundant termites.
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Come try the favourites at this Australian-style café, which includes a BLT on sour dough bread, double salmon fish cakes, Burmese shredded chicken salad and of course a range of delicious and healthy breakfast choices for all ages.