Allison Winter, ENN
With a small and declining population due to forest clearing and overhunting in New Guinea, the western long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijnii) is listed as “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. In Australia, the species has been thought to be extinct as fossil remains from the Pleistocene epoch demonstrate that the species lived here tens of thousands of years ago and no modern record of the species has been known. That is until scientists discovered one particular specimen in the overlooked cabinets of the Natural History Museum in London.
The western long-beaked echidna is one of the world’s five egg-laying species of mammal. Long-beaked echidnas are spiny 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 are the only monotremes that still exist and are consequently only found in Australia and New Guinea. Little is known about the life of this long-beaked species because it is rarely seen and thus the reason why many have believed it to be extinct.
The newfound skin and skull specimen reveals that the species was reproducing in Australia at least until the early 20th century. The long-beaked echidna specimen was brought to the Natural History Museum in London in 1939. Seventy years later, Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution, the lead author of the new findings, visited the museum and came across the specimen.
Coming across such a specimen not only highlights the importance of maintaining museum collections, but also provides us with more insight into species of the past and present.
Learning whether the western long-beaked echidna still exists in Australia today will be a challenge, but is a goal for Helgen and his colleagues. Scientists will need to explore the Australian bush and will start looking in the region of Kimbereley in Western Australia where the specimen was collected by John Tunney back in 1901. Researchers will also interview native Aboriginal communities who might have other undocumented information that can lead researchers to the mammal.
Finding out the causes of the echidnas near extinction will help scientists predict and prevent other species from heading down the same path.
Allison Winter, ENN