I've just finished filming my new series, Freaks and Creeps for National Geographic Wild, in which I travel to the furthest corners of the planet to seek out the world's most bizarre animals and discover the secrets behind their oddness. I found monkeys with massive noses, dwarf elephants and flying snakes. But perhaps the strangest of them all was the echidna- an ancient egg-laying hedgehog from Tasmania and the owner of what can only be described as the world's weirdest penis.
Tasmania is like a time machine. Its primeval forests team 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 Stuart Rose 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. Stuart 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.
It’s the breeding season right now and lady echidnas are rarely alone
The Echidna’s on this farm have been radio-tagged to make them easier to study. They live for up to 45 years and Stuart 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.
Stuart 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. Stuart 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 Stuart 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. Stuart 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 Stuart’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 Stuart 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 but 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 Stuart 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.
‘Freaks and Creeps’ airs on Nat Geo Wild every Tuesday at 8pm and is repeated regularly throughout the week, Check here for info on when it airs
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