Western Long-beaked Echidna
January 3, 2013

Is The Western Long-beaked Echidna Still Hiding Out In Australia?

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A research team, led by the Smithsonian Institution, has found evidence that the western long-beaked echidna, one of the world's five egg-laying mammal species thought to have become extinct thousands of years ago, survived far longer than previously thought. The findings of this study, published in a recent issue of Zookeys, suggest they may well still exist in parts of Australia today.

The western long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijnii) is listed as "Critically Endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species because of its small and declining population, confined to the Indonesian portion of the island of New Guinea. The small mammal is considered extinct in Australia where fossil remains from the Pleistocene epoch demonstrate that it did occur there tens of thousands of years ago. The former presence of the species is further supported by ancient Aboriginal rock art. No modern record from Australia, however, was known to exist until researchers took a closer look at a specimen stored in the collection cabinets at the Natural History Museum in London. The specimen, previously overlooked, was collected from the wild in northern Australia in 1901 — thousands of years after they were thought to have gone extinct there.

"Sometimes while working in museums, I find specimens that turn out to be previously undocumented species," said Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, the first to report the significance of the echidna specimen. "But in many ways, finding a specimen like this, of such an iconic animal, with such clear documentation from such an unexpected place, is even more exciting."

Known as monotremes — a small and primitive order of mammals that lay eggs rather than give birth — the platypus, the short-beaked echidna, and the three species of long-beaked echidna (Western, Eastern and Sir David Attenborough's) are the only surviving species in the order. The platypus is found only in eastern Australia, while the short-beaked echidna is found in Australia and New Guinea. The long-beaked echidna was previously known as living animals only on the island of New Guinea. Beach-ball sized mammals covered in course blackish-brown hair and spines, they grow to twice the size of the platypus or short-beaked echidna. In a truly unique take on reproduction, the female echidna lays a single leathery egg directly into their pouch where it hatches approximately 10 days later.

The recently re-examined specimen in London demonstrates that the species was reproducing in Australia at least until the early 20th century. John T. Tunney collected the specimen in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1901. Tunney, a naturalist, was on a collecting expedition for the private museum of Lord L. Walter Rothschild of England. Tunney collected many species of butterflies, birds and mammals (some new to science at the time), however, no full report of his specimens has ever been published. After Rothschild's death in 1939, the collection was transferred to the Natural History Museum in London. Another 70 years would pass before Helgen came across the specimen, still with the original Tunney labels, which not only challenged prior thinking about the current distribution, but also offered insight into where it may still occur.

"The discovery of the western long-beaked echidna in Australia is astonishing," said Professor Tim Flannery of Macquarie University in Sydney, referring to the new study. "It highlights the importance of museum collections, and how much there is still to learn about Australia's fauna."

It will take time to learn if the long-beaked echidna still exists in Australia.

"The next step will be an expedition to search for this animal," Helgen said. "We'll need to look carefully in the right habitats to determine where it held on, and for how long, and if any are still out there."

Helgen hopes to draw on his experience with the New Guinea population of echidna and to interview those who know the northern Australian bush best.

"We believe there may be memories of this animal among Aboriginal communities, and we'd like to learn as much about that as we can," he said.

Finding Australian survivors or understanding why and when they vanished is an important scientific goal, in terms of conservation.

"We hold out hope that somewhere in Australia, long-beaked echidnas still lay their eggs," said Helgen.