When a spiny, egg-laying mammal comes into the frame of a camera in a remote Indonesian jungle, researchers discover that an ancient species of echidna thought to be extinct is still alive.
The rediscovery of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, named in honor of British naturalist and filmmaker David Attenborough, took place during an expedition this past summer led by Oxford University researchers to the Cyclops Mountains in Papua New Guinea – the only place where the species is known. they have lived.
The team spent a month searching for the animal and set up 80 cameras in the field to cover multiple locations. It wasn’t until the last day of the trip that one of the cameras captured the first evidence in more than 60 years that proved the existence of this animal.
“It came down to that last moment,” said James Kempton, an Oxford University biologist who led the expedition. “They were the last pictures, of the last camera we collected, on the last day of the climb. There was a great relief at the beginning because we spent a lot of effort – then we enjoyed the joy.”
Kristofer Helgen, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, later confirmed the identification of the species.
The discovery is important to preserve a unique evolutionary history, Kempton said. Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna is one of only five living species of monotremes, a group of egg-laying mammals, including the platypus. The group evolved from other mammals when they diverged from the rest of the mammalian “tree of life” about 200 million years ago, Kempton noted.
“It is very important because it is one of the custodians of this unique and fragile evolutionary history, which if lost, would be a total disaster,” he said.
Kempton hopes this discovery will help make the case for the conservation of the species and its habitat in Indonesia. The echidna is classified as critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but it is not a protected species under Indonesian law.
During the trip, which took place in June and July, the researchers also discovered dozens of new insects, two new species of frogs, and a new species of native shrimp, according to a recent news release. The team also found the first media records from 2008 of Mayr’s honeyeater, a bird named after the evolutionist Ernst Mayr.
But it is the echidna that has become the poster child for the region’s conservation efforts.
“It represents the iconic animal of the Cyclops Mountains. It symbolizes the extraordinary biodiversity that exists and why it is so important to protect those mountains,” Kempton said. “We are in a critical situation right now to make sure that those forests are not cut down and we don’t have bad conditions like we see in the Amazon and the Congo.”
Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, which in fact bears no resemblance to its namesake, has “the back of a hedgehog, the nose of a deer and the feet of a mole,” says the biologist.
Kempton, who has been in touch with Attenborough, says the filmmaker is “delighted” to be discovered.
The first scientific evidence of the existence of these species dates back to 1961 when a Dutch botanist collected an echidna. This specimen is now preserved in the Netherlands Museum of natural history in the form of taxidermy.
“When that was discovered, people thought maybe it was gone because it was the only one,” Pepijn Kamminga, the museum’s collection manager, told BBC News. “So this (rediscovery) is amazing news.”
Years later, researchers were convinced that the echidna still lived in the Cyclops Mountains after a trip last year found features of “nose piercings,” holes left in the ground by the echidna foraging.