Attenborough’s echidna rediscovered after presumed extinct for 60 years
After a presumed extinction of Attenborough’s echidna since the last sighting in 1961, a team of scientists from the University of Oxford endured a treacherous four week expedition through the Cyclops Mountains of Indonesia, and were rewarded with the highest prize.
The team, led by James Kempton, trekked over 11,000 metres and set up over 80 camera traps to try and spot this elusive creature, which they managed only on their final day.
“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.”
Attenborough’s echidna, along with the platypus and three other echidna species, is one of five remaining monotremes. These are rare, egg-laying mammals which diverged from the rest of the mammalian group around 200 million years ago. Many unique aspects of their biology have intrigued scientists for years, including their ability to ‘sweat’ milk out through their skin to feed their young, and the electrosensory system in their snout that they use to detect electrical currents in prey. The solitary, nocturnal lifestyle of the echidna no doubt played a role in making this elusive species so hard to find.
However, working closely with the local community of Yongsu Sapari, the team were able to capitalise on expert knowledge of the forest. This proved most useful when deciding where to fix their cameras, and helping to navigate the unforgiving terrain. The team were careful to respect the local beliefs, who deem the Cyclop mountains sacred, so mindfully avoided the restricted areas, or adhered to silent hiking when necessary.
Not only are the mountains sacred, but the echidna itself also represents a symbol of peace to the local community. It is said that when two people enter into a conflict, one is instructed to find an echidna, and the other a marlin fish, in the hope that two such arduous tasks will endure until the conflict is forgotten.
And arduous did this task proved to be. After one broken arm, one hospital trip to surgically remove a leech from an eye, and two earthquakes, the team were much deserving of their long-awaited success.
“You’re slipping all over the place. You’re being scratched and cut. There are venomous animals around you, deadly snakes like the death adder.”
But it seems the team were rewarded with more than they bargained for. This discovery was accompanied by several dozen new insects previously unknown to science, as well as the rediscovery of Mayr’s honeyeater, and a completely new species of tree-dwelling shrimp, that the team admitted they were rather surprised to find so far from the coast. One clumsy stumble through a mossy bank even led to the finding of an entire new underground cave system!
It is hoped that from this expedition will come a new wave of appreciation for the Cyclops Mountains as a true biodiversity hotspot. Despite being considered ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN red list, the echidna is still not a protected species in Indonesia. Furthermore, the mountains are surrounded by an abundance of human threats, including logging, agriculture, and mining. It is clear that this forest holds great biological potential, and this wave of discoveries might be just what it needs to receive the conservation efforts it warrants.