Museum specimen sparks hope of echidna survival in Australia

03 January 2013

The western long-beaked echidna, Zaglossus bruijnii, is one of only 5 species of egg-laying mammals (Monotremes) on the planet and it exists only on New Guinea. It was thought to have gone extinct in Australia thousands of years ago, but an overlooked specimen at the Natural History Museum has revealed a more recent existence and has sparked hope that there may be survivors.

Long-beaked echidna specimen collected from Australia in 1901.

Natural History Museum long-beaked echidna specimen collected from Australia in 1901.

The long-beaked echidna is twice the size of a platypus with coarse blackish-brown hair and spines. The only records of the Australian animal were from fossils more than 10,000 years ago, and also from ancient Aboriginal rock art.

Now, a team of scientists, led by Kristofer Helgen at the Smithsonian and including Roberto Portela Miguez of the Natural History Museum, investigated an echidna specimen found among the Museum's collection of over 700,000 mammal specimens, 195 of which are echidnas.

It had been collected in 1901 by naturalist John Tunney in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia on a collecting expedition for Lord Walter Rothschild, whose private collections were transferred to the Museum in 1939 after his death.

Roberto Portela Miguez says, 'This research highlights the value of the Museum’s collections and it offers a new insight into one of the most critically endangered modern mammal species.'

The long-beaked echidna is classed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.

'This species was thought to be extinct in mainland Australia for at least 11000 years, but the discovery of this 100-year-old specimen together with aboriginal accounts means that they might have actually survived until recently and in fact some survivors may still be around,' adds Portela Miguez.

How likely is it that there are living Australian animals?

The team do have optimism, however small, that long-beaked echidnas might yet roam a hidden corner of Australia’s north-west. Portela Miguez explains, 'Such hopes are founded on the remoteness and inaccessibility of this little-studied expanse of the Australian continent, and on the relatively late discovery of other medium-sized Kimberley mammals.'

The labels from the 1901 long-beaked echidna specimen revealed many key facts.

The labels from the 1901 long-beaked echidna specimen revealed many key facts about the animal living in Australia.

The most recent Australian rediscoveries were the scaly-tailed possum (Wyulda squamicaudata) in the Eastern Kimberley, which had not been recorded since 1917, and the monjon, (Petrogale burbidgei), a small rock wallaby endemic to the North-West Kimberley, which was described in 1978. 

Search for an echidna

As well as new molecular and isotope studies on the specimen, the team hopes to survey the areas the animal potentially might be living in. Finding Australian long-beaked echidna survivors or understanding why and when they vanished is an important scientific goal.

'The next step will be an expedition to search for this animal,' Helgen says. '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.

'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'.

  • by Yvonne Da Silva
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