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Researchers rediscover an echidna named after David Attenborough

Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, spotted on camera for the first time, was the star finding for researchers during a month-long expedition in Papua New Guinea's Cyclops Mountains.
Expedition Cyclops
Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, spotted on camera for the first time, was the star finding for researchers during a month-long expedition in Papua New Guinea's Cyclops Mountains.

When a spiny, snouted egg-laying mammal moseyed into the frame of a camera nestled in a remote Indonesian rainforest, researchers found out an ancient echidna species thought to be extinct is very much still alive.

The rediscovery of Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, named in honor of British naturalist and filmmaker David Attenborough, came during an expedition this past summer led by Oxford University researchers in the craggy Cyclops Mountains of the Papua province — the only place the species is known to have lived.

The team spent a month searching for the animal and set up 80 cameras in the field to cover more ground. It wasn't until the last day of the expedition that one of the cameras caught the first evidence in more than 60 years proving the existence of the animal.

"It came down to that very final moment," said James Kempton, an Oxford University biologist who led the expedition. "It was the very last images, from the final camera that we collected, on the final day of the last ascent of the expedition. It was intense relief initially because we spent so much effort — and then euphoria."

Kristofer Helgen, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, later confirmed the identification of the species.

The discovery is critical for the preservation of a distinct evolutionary history, Kempton said. Attenborough's long-beaked echidna is one of only five living species of monotremes, a group of egg-laying mammals, which includes the platypus. The group evolved independently of other mammals when they broke off from the rest of the mammal "tree of life" over 200 million years ago, noted Kempton.

"It's so important because it's another guardian of this unique and fragile evolutionary history, which, if it were to be lost, would be an absolute tragedy," he said.

Kempton hopes the discovery will help make a case for the conservation of the species and its Indonesian habitat. The echidna is classified as critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but it's not a protected species under Indonesian law.

During the expedition, which took place in June and July, researchers also discovered dozens of new insects, two new frog species, and a new genus of shrimp that lives on land, according to a recent news release. The team also obtained the first media documentation since 2008 of Mayr's honeyeater, a bird named after the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr.

But it's the echidna that has become somewhat of a poster child for the region's conservation efforts.

"It represents a flagship animal of the Cyclops Mountains. It symbolizes what an extraordinary biodiversity there is there and why it's so important to protect those mountains," Kempton said. "We're at critical juncture right now to make sure that those forests are not felled and that we don't have terrible situations like we see in the Amazon and the Congo."

Attenborough's long-beaked echidna, which of course bears no resemblance to its namesake, has "the spines of a hedgehog, the snout of an anteater and the feet of a mole," said the biologist.

Kempton, who's been in touch with Attenborough, says the filmmaker "is delighted" by the discovery.

It's the first scientific evidence of the species' existence since 1961, when a Dutch botanist collected the echidna. That specimen is now housed at the Netherlands museum of natural history in taxidermy form.

"When that was discovered, people thought, well, maybe it's extinct already because it's the only one," Pepijn Kamminga, the museum's collection manager, told BBC News. "So this [the rediscovery] is incredible news."

Years later, researchers were confident that the echidna was still living in the Cyclops Mountains after an expedition last year found characteristic "nose pokes," holes left in the ground by a foraging echidna.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 10, 2023 at 10:00 PM MST
This story previously said the Cyclops Mountains were located in the island country of Papua New Guinea. The mountains are located in the Papua province of Indonesia.
Emma Bowman