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.
Back from the dead
Hunting and habitat loss were thought to have killed off this freshwater crocodile in the 1980s, but one was photographed near Thailand's border with Burma in 2001.
This spectacular bird was thought to have died out in the 1920s because of forest clearances. When it was seen alive in Arkansas in 2004, some ornithologists compared the discovery to finding the dodo.
Scientists noticed a dead squirrel-like rodent on sale at a market in Laos in 2005. It was a relative of the Diatomyidae family, believed extinct for 11 million years.
Zoology student Elizabeth Sinclair rediscovered this Australian marsupial, thought to have died out in the 1870s, when she trapped two specimens while looking for other species near Perth in 1994.
BAVARIAN PINE VOLE
They were last sighted in 1962, and considered extinct. But in 2000, one turned up in a scientist's trap in the Austrian Tyrol.
Having existed for at least 360 million years, the coelacanth was thought to have died out 70 million years ago, until a fisherman caught one off South Africa in 1938.