July 16, 2007

Rediscovered: Attenborough’s ‘Extinct’ Egg-Laying Mammal

By Steve Connor

A species of mammal that lays eggs and suckles its young in a pouch has been rediscovered in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, nearly 50 years after it was seen for the first and last time.

Attenborough's longbeaked echidna - which was named after Sir David Attenborough - was known only from a single museum specimen caught in 1961. Its subsequent disappearance led scientists to believe that it had become extinct.

However, a scientific expedition to the remote Cyclops Mountains has found that the endangered creature is still alive and continues to use its long, toothless beak to poke exploratory holes in the ground in its endless search for earthworms.

"We've not found a live one yet, but we've found the areas where they feed - they leave very distinctive imprints in the soil with their beaks," said Jonathan Bail-lie of the Zoological Society of London, who led the expedition. The scientists also interviewed tribesmen who had reported sightings of the shy, nocturnal creature as recently as 2005. It is known locally by the name of payangko, and is sometimes hunted for food.

"We hope that Sir David Attenborough will be delighted to hear that his namesake species is still surviving in the wilds of the Papuan jungle," Dr Baillie said. "We are now planning a further expedition to the mountains to discover more about the species and devise conservation plans to ensure its long-term survival," he added.

There are three species of long-beaked echidna living in New Guinea. Attenborough's echidna - Zaglossus attenboroughi - is about half the size of the others, being just about big enough to fit into a shoebox. The month-long expedition to Papua covered areas of the mountain forests that have not been explored for at least 45 years. Attenborough's echidna is the only echidna that lives on the slopes of the Cyclops Mountains so its feeding marks cannot he confused with those made by another species, Dr Baillie said.

"In addition to Attenborough's echidna, we found an astonishingly vast array of biodiversity, some of which is highly unlikely to be known to science."

The long-beaked echidna, and its Australian relative the short- beaked echidna, belong to a group of mammals that have retained evolutionary primitive features that link them to their reptile ancestors - such as egg laying and limbs that stick out from the side of the body rather than from underneath.

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