The western long-beaked echidna, (Zaglossus bruijnii) is a critically endangered species with just a small population living in Indonesian New Guinea. It is one of only 5 mammal species that lays eggs and was thought to have gone extinct in Australia thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years ago. But a recent discovery has led to the question of; Is the echidna still surviving in the Kimberley wilderness?
Surprisingly the discovery that has led to the exciting possibility did not occur in Australia but in the Natural History Museum of London, UK. A specimen of the mammal was found tucked away in a cabinet within the collections at the museum and it was collected from the Kimberley region in 1901 – thousands of years after the animal was thought to have died out.
The discovery of the western long-beaked echidna in Australia is astonishing.
Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, the lead author and the scientist to first report the significance of the echidna specimen said, “Sometimes while working in museums, I find specimens that turn out to be previously undocumented species, 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 western long-beaked echidna has been recorded in Ancient Aboriginal rock art and there are fossil remains from the Pleistocene epoch but until this single specimen was rediscovered there had been no modern records of the echidna is Australia.
Long-beaked echidnas are fascinating creatures laying eggs rather than giving birth to live young which most other mammals do. This egg laying behaviour puts the western long-beaked echidna into the order of monotremes where it joins others such as the platypus and Sir David Attenburgh’s long beaked echidna.
The long beaked echindas are the largest of the monotremes and are about double the size of a platypus – or about the size of a beach ball. They are covered in stiff hairs and spines. Long snouts allow them to dig into the ground looking for invertebrates to feed on. Females lay a single egg into their pouches where it incubates for about 10 days.
The rediscovered museum piece means that the western long beaked echinda was still alive in the Kimberley wilderness as late as 1901 when it was collected by naturalist John T. Tunney for the private museum of Lord L. Walter Rothschild in England. The specimen was given to the Natural History Museum in 1939 where it lay in a cabinet until the recent study by Helgen.
If the echindas were still living in Australia in 1901 could there still be a chance that they are still surviving, undiscovered, in the vast wilderness of Kimberley in north west Australia?
“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.”
“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.
“We hold out hope that somewhere in Australia, long-beaked echidnas still lay their eggs,” said Helgen.