Lucy Cooke loves the animals that the rest of us don’t think twice about. She’s off to a remote Australian island- Tasmania- to determine which animal deserves the title “ultimate weirdo”. The competition is fierce: With a face like a retired boxer and a scream to send chills down her spine, the scrappy Tasmanian devil seems to be a prime contender. Also on the ballot, a spiny, termite-eating, egg-laying mammal with a four-headed penis called the echidna. And how about an animal with the bill like a duck, body of a mammal and defense system like a reptile for top billing?
Tasmania is like a time machine. Its primeval forests teem with living fossils that have followed a different evolutionary branch to most mammals. So for freak lovers like me it’s like hitting the jackpot.
My number one quarry is the echidna – an ancient termite-eating hedgehog with what can only be described as the world’s weirdest wedding tackle. Echidnas, along with the duck-billed platypus, are the last surviving monotremes – an early branch of mammals that still lay eggs like reptiles. But despite such ancestral behaviour these oddballs are remarkably successful and have been waddling the planet since the time of the dinosaurs.
To find one I’m hooking up with Dr. Stewart Nicol who has devoted the last 25 years of his life to studying the sex life of this peculiar creature. We rendezvous on a farm in the north of Tasmania on a bright but blowy morning. Stewart is accompanied by a quartet of windswept young female research students all equipped with a great Australian sense of humour. I ask them whether it was the echidna’s extraordinary penis that attracted them to their work and they all nod. Apparently I will not be disappointed.
The Echidna’s on this farm have been radio-tagged to make them easier to study. They live for up to 45 years and Stewart has been following some individuals for over a decade. We first locate a female. It’s the breeding season right now and lady echidnas are rarely alone. The competition for sex is fierce and it’s not uncommon to witness the somewhat comical sight of a solitary female being stalked by a conga line of up to ten ardent suitors.
Stewart tells me this particular female has mated with three males in as many days. I’m thinking there’s a word for that. But this wanton behaviour is fully accepted by echidna society. Stewart is studying whether these libidinous ladies have the ability to choose which sperm eventually fertilises their eggs. It’s this kind of seriously sneaky behaviour assuring Mrs. Echidna chooses the best genes that could have helped the echidna survive for so long.
Our female is obviously having a well-deserved day off as we find her alone under a log. Our quest to find a male continues as Stewart picks up the signal of an old male affectionately known as Grumpy. By now the weather has switched to sheets of icy rain and, to protect himself, Grumpy has wedged himself inside the decaying trunk of a fallen tree. Stewart heads back to the car to pick up a crowbar – essential kit for an echidna researcher. I’m wondering if Grumpy will live up to his name when he finds himself winkled out of his snug home by five women demanding to see his penis.
It takes over half an hour of concerted physical effort to reveal our prize, wedged in amongst the rotting wood. Then there is the tricky part of picking up an angry mass of six-inch spines. My leather gloves are pierced by the first attempt, illustrating what an effective defence they are, and I hand over to the professionals who tell me that swollen, punctured and bleeding hands are an occupational hazard of echidna research.
Eventually, Grumpy is extracted and just as I am leaning in to take my first proper look at a male echidna he lets his feelings be known and starts projectile squirting a dirty protest that only narrowly misses my face. This is why they call him Grumpy apparently. And fair enough I suppose.
We take Grumpy back to the pickup where Stewart’s assistants are rapidly converting it into an impromptu echidna MASH unit complete with ultrasound to observe his innards. A male’s echidna’s crown jewels are all stored inside his body so from the outside Grumpy looks like a lady.
But when Stewart gently presses a bump in his groin, out pops Grumpy’s famous penis, like an inflated rubber glove. This extraordinary member has four distinct heads and looks like a stumpy hand with no thumb waving at me. Or some sort of weird sea anemone. It definitely doesn’t look like any penis I have ever seen before. Thankfully. The girls are right, it does not disappoint in the odd stakes. But it is slightly disturbing. Plus all of a sudden, standing in the rain staring at a defenceless animal with his penis hanging out feels a tiny bit wrong. I sort of want to cover it up for him and say sorry.
The reason why the echidna’s penis has four heads is still up for grabs. The female echidna has two love canals and Stewart believes that the penis works like a double double-barrelled shotgun, firing out of the two heads on one side, and then again quite quickly on the other. Given the fact Mr. Echidna has no idea which side his lady’s egg will be released this might increase his chances of fertilisation. In the battle of the sexes it is perhaps his best defence against her sneaky sperm storing ways. Whatever the reason it is without doubt one of the strangest things I have ever seen in my life.
Don’t miss Freaks & Creeps: Devil Island on Tuesday, 7/17 at 10P on Nat Geo WILD.