Can spines tell a story? Investigation of echidna spines as a novel sample type for hormone analysis in monotremes

Ana Fabio Braga, Kathleen E. Hunt, Danielle Dillon, Michael Minicozzi, Stewart C. Nicol, C. Loren Buck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) is a monotreme endemic to Australia and New Guinea, and is the most widespread native mammal in Australia. Despite its abundance, there are considerable gaps in our understanding of echidna life history such as reproductive cycles in both sexes, patterns of stress physiology, and possible seasonal changes in metabolism. Slow-growing integumentary sample types comprised of keratin (hair, claw, etc.) have been used in other wildlife to assess these questions via analysis of longitudinal patterns in steroid and thyroid hormones that are deposited in these tissues as they grow. Hairs and spines comprise the pelage of echidnas, the spines being keratinized structures homologous to hair. Thus, echidna spines could be a viable sample type for hormone analysis contributing to a better understanding of the biology of echidnas. The aim of this work was to determine whether steroid hormones are detectable in echidna spines, to perform assay validations, and to establish a protocol for extracting and quantifying hormones in echidna spines using commercially available assay kits. We also inspected cross-sectioned spines using light and electron microscopy for any evidence of annual growth markers that might enable inferences about spine growth rate. Corticosterone, progesterone, estradiol, and testosterone were detectable in all samples, and echidna spine extract passed standard assay validations (parallelism and accuracy), indicating that commercially available assay kits can quantify hormones accurately in this sample type. No visible growth marks were identified in the spines and thus spine growth rate is currently unknown. Echidna spines show promise as a novel matrix from which hormones can be quantified; next steps should involve determination of spine annual growth rate, possible seasonal changes in growth rate, and persistence of spines over time in order to perform physiological validations, i.e., relationship between physiological status and hormone concentrations in spines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number114053
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
StatePublished - Sep 1 2022


  • Echidna
  • Hormone
  • Keratinized tissues
  • Noninvasive
  • Reproduction
  • Stress
  • Validation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Endocrinology


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