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Rare egg-laying mammal may still live in Australia

Caption: The western long-beaked echidna, one of the world's five egg-laying species of mammal, was thought to be extinct in Australia. However scientists have found evidence that it may still roam the country's north-western region.Credit: Tim Laman


Caption: The western long-beaked echidna, one of the world’s five egg-laying species of mammal, was thought to be extinct in Australia. However scientists have found evidence that it may still roam the country’s north-western region.
Credit: Tim Laman

Closer look at long-lost museum specimen offers new clues into persistence of endangered echidna

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — After re-examining a museum specimen of one of the world’s rarest animals, biologists said they will scour the Australian backcountry to see if they can find a living specimen of the western long-beaked echidna, one of the world’s five egg-laying mammal species.

Until recently, scientists assumed that the critically endangered echidna went extinct in Australia thousands of years ago, but the overlooked specimen in the Natural History Museum in London. was collected from the wild in northwestern Australia in 1901.

Sometimes while working in museums, I find specimens that turn out to be previously undocumented species,” said Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, the lead author and the scientist to first 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.”

The findings were published in a recent issue of the journal ZooKeys. The specimen in London indicates that the species was reproducing in Australia at least until the early 20th century. It was collected in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia by naturalist John T. Tunney in 1901, on a collecting expedition for the private museum of Lord L. Walter Rothschild in England.

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

The only known population of western long-beaked echidnas survives in the Indonesian portion of the island of New Guinea. The species is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The fossil record from the Pleistocene epoch shows that the species occured in Australia tens of thousands of years ago, as does ancient Aboriginal rock art.

“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.” To find it, Helgen hopes to draw on his experience with the species in New Guinea 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.

Long-beaked echidnas are known as monotremes―a small and primitive order of mammals that lay eggs rather than give birth to live young. The platypus, the short-beaked echidna, and the three species of long-beaked echidna (Western, Eastern and Sir David Attenborough’s) are the only monotremes that still exist.

The platypus is found only in eastern Australia, the short-beaked echidna is found in Australia and New Guinea, and the long-beaked echidnas were previously known as living animals only from the island of New Guinea. Long-beaked echidnas, which grow to twice the size of the platypus or the short-beaked echidna, are beach-ball sized mammals covered in coarse blackish-brown hair and spines. They use their long, tubular snout to root for invertebrates in the forests and meadows of New Guinea. Among many peculiar attributes, reproduction is one of the most unique―females lay a single leathery egg directly into their pouch where it hatches in about 10 days.

With the species in danger of extinction, finding Australian survivors or understanding why and when they vanished is an important scientific goal. “We hold out hope that somewhere in Australia, long-beaked echidnas still lay their eggs,” said Helgen.

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