The Echidna: Australia’s Enigma, by Dr. Peggy Rismiller
As is often the case in books like this, this volume is not only about the echidna and what an odd animal it happens to be, but also about the author, because people who write a book like this feel it necessary to make at least part of the book about them and are not willing to give all of their attention to the subject at hand. So it is that this book begins not with a study of the echidna itself but rather with the author’s own fascination with the animal and the way that it led her out of Germany to study in Australia and to spend decades seeking to better understand an animal about which little is known. The author, moreover, feels it necessary at many points throughout this book to defend her credentials as a scientist by being able, however belatedly, to follow the evidence where it lays rather than letting theory get in the way of scientific knowledge. None of this is strictly necessary to making the book a compelling one, which it would be if its focus was truly on the echidna and not on the author, who is considerably less interesting and compelling, but people write books for personal reasons and the intrusiveness of the writing occasionally reminds us that it is indeed a person who wrote this book for very personal reasons.
This book is a bit more than 100 pages and is full of some very interesting pictures of echidnas in their natural habitat that are striking and rare and well worth reading for those who are fans of the odd animal. In addition to this, the author provides some occasionally winning text as well divided into several chapters. The author begins by setting the scene about her studies of the echidna by focusing on her own research history as well as the location of her research on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. After this the author spends some time chronicling the knowledge of the animal in the writings and myths and studies of others. After this comes a chapter where the author celebrates the oddness and extremeness of the echidna as an egg-laying monotreme. After this comes a look at the life of the echidna in the bush, in its natural habitat. The is followed by some look at some moments in the lives of echidnas as monotremes as well as a look at the diverse environments that the echidna can live in. These man chapters are then followed by a list of myths and facts about the echidna, a glossary, echidnas outside Australia, a bibliography, footnotes, and an index.
Echidnas are, in fact, very enigmatic creatures, and there are good reasons why this is the case. The author, when she is not talking about her own research and that of others by trying to make her and other scientists out to be rather heroic figures, manages on a few occasions to bring out the difficulty of knowing and finding out things about the echidna because they are solitary animals that are quite shy around human beings, whom they are rightly afraid of, besides blending into the creation around them well and also having behavior and habits that defy easy categorization and assumption. It is indeed all the more telling that many of the author’s own insights about the echidna come from her observation of the animal on a small island off the southern coast of Australia, and that in this confined habitat certain assumptions and extrapolations have been made for the population of animals in the rest of Australia, where conditions are not as easy for the understanding of echidna ways, seeing as echidnas are animals which like to roam and which have many secrets kept diligently because they are an elusive and odd animal.