Advertisement

Attenborough’s long-lost echidna rediscovered in New Guinea jungle

A long-lost species of egg-laying mammal named after Sir David Attenborough has been rediscovered by a British-led expedition in the dense jungles of New Guinea more than 60 years after it was last spotted.

A living specimen of Sir David’s long-beaked echidna, which resembles a large hedgehog with a long snout, was last documented in 1961.

Scientists had no idea whether it had become extinct or not. But it has now been filmed by a University of Oxford expedition in the Cyclops Mountains of Papua, the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea.

It is the first video footage ever recorded of the species.

A multinational team of scientists braved earthquakes, sheer cliffs, deadly snakes, malaria and blood-sucking leeches as they scoured the rainforest for the elusive creature.

The long-beaked echidna was captured on a trail camera on the very last day of a month-long expedition. Images of the creature were found on the last memory card retrieved from more than 80 cameras that had been set up in the rainforest by the scientists.

Dr James Kempton spotted the species in the jungles of the Cyclops mountains of Indonesia's Papua Province
Dr James Kempton and his team spotted the species in the jungles of the Cyclops mountains of Indonesia's Papua Province - Expedition Cyclops

“I’m not joking when I say it came down to the very last SD card that we looked at, from the very last camera that we collected, on the very last day of our expedition,” biologist Dr James Kempton told the BBC.

The camera trap footage shows the animal waddling across the forest floor with a distinctive loping gait.

“(The reason) it appears so unlike other mammals is because it is a member of the monotremes – an egg-laying group that separated from the rest of the mammal tree-of-life about 200 million years ago,” Dr Kempton said in a statement.

He said the animal has “the spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater and the feet of a mole”.

The last time the species was recorded scientifically was by a Dutch botanist in 1961. The only evidence that the species existed, until now, was a specimen held by a museum in the Netherlands.

Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna echidna walks amid vegetation in the Cyclops Mountains, Papua, Indonesia
Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna echidna walks amid vegetation in the Cyclops Mountains, Papua, Indonesia

The importance of the specimen was revealed in 1998, when x-rays showed it wasn’t a juvenile of another echidna species, but in fact fully grown and distinct. The species was named after Sir David following the discovery.

One of the many unusual features of echidnas is the fact that they are equipped with a four-pronged penis. It has four separate heads, or glans, although only two of them are used during each erection.

Sir David’s long-beaked echidna, also known as Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, plays an important part in local culture, with a tradition saying that if a conflict breaks out between villagers, one party should be sent into the jungle to look for one of the animals while another should travel to the coast of New Guinea to find a marlin.

Both creatures are so rare that finding them could take years or decades, by which time the reasons for the conflict would be forgotten.

The scientifically named Zaglossus attenboroughi is classified as critically endangered because of habitat loss and hunting for its meat. The only living relative of the echidnas is the duck-billed platypus of Australia.

Aside from rediscovering the lost echidna, the expedition also found two new species of frog and a new species of terrestrial shrimp as they explored the Cyclops Mountains. The scientists are calling for the region to be given much better protection.

“With 83 per cent of Indonesian New Guinea’s old-growth forest still intact, we are at a critical moment to ensure the preservation of the world’s most biodiverse island,” said Dr Kempton.

The expedition also found a new species of terrestial shrimp, found in the soil and in the trees of the Cyclops Mountains
The expedition also found a new species of terrestial shrimp, found in the soil and in the trees of the Cyclops Mountains - Expedition Cyclops